For an ailment to be considered an occupational disease, it must be prevalent in a set of workers compared to the general populace. There must also be a clear and direct work-related cause for the disease.
Byssinosis is one such occupational disease. Sometimes called “brown lung” disease (which is a misnomer since the lungs of affected people don’t turn brownish), it manifests as coughing with sputum, shortness of breath, wheezing and general breathing difficulties.
While it can manifest outside of industrial settings, the disease is most associated with the cotton, flax and hemp industries since it’s caused by inhaling the dust particles these materials give off. Experts believe the endotoxin produced by bacteria in the textiles causes lung inflammation.
North Carolina has a significant cotton industry, and byssinosis is a major concern among workers. Can these employees rely on workers’ compensation to pay for their treatment?
Compensation for lung-based occupational diseases
Fortunately, workers’ compensation insurance can cover the treatment for byssinosis. To treat mild to moderate symptoms of the disease, a doctor might recommend a worker take bronchodilators, which help relax the muscles in the lungs to encourage breathing. A healthcare professional might instead recommend corticosteroids for more severe forms of byssinosis, which can help reduce lung inflammation. Workers’ compensation can pay for these medications.
Alternatively, the doctor might also prescribe that the worker avoid exposure to cotton or textile dust, which could involve taking some days off. Once more, workers’ compensation can help pay for lost wages. However, workers should keep in mind that they won’t receive benefits for the first seven days of lost time unless their occupational disease keeps them from working for more than 21 days.
Addressing disputes in byssinosis claims
No matter how severe, there’s no guarantee that a claim for byssinosis would be approved. An employer could deny liability for compensation, citing reasons such as a non-work-related factor as the cause of the worker’s disease. Or the employer’s insurer could deny payment for byssinosis treatment, citing the worker’s smoking habit as an aggravating factor for the disease, for instance.
If workers and their employers (or their employer’s insurers) reach an impasse over the claim, workers should file a form to request a hearing with the North Carolina Industrial Commission (NCIC). The NCIC can help settle the dispute through an administrative hearing, but this is a complicated procedure. Workers should consider their legal options if they feel lost in the process.