Various types of injuries are covered by workers’ compensation. Perhaps the most typical type of injury involves a specific trauma or event; for example, a painter who falls off a scaffold or a car mechanic who injures his back after lifting an engine. Another type of injury is a cumulative trauma injury, an injury caused by repetitious work over time. An example of cumulative trauma injury is carpal tunnel syndrome caused by using a computer keyboard. A third type of compensable injury is occupational disease, and an example of that would be lung disease caused by exposure to asbestos at work.
Mental illness caused by work is compensable in some, but not all, jurisdictions. Mental illness such as stress, anxiety, or depression, even when caused by work, is not compensable in most states. However, mental illness that accompanies a work-related physical injury is compensable in most states. For instance, a nurse who develops depression related to his work in an emergency room typically would not be entitled to workers’ compensation, but a nurse who is attacked and physically injured by a patient and as a result develops anxiety could receive workers’ compensation benefits for the physical as well as the mental injury in most states.
Injuries are deemed to be work-related and compensable under workers’ compensation if they arise out of and in the course of employment. The requirement that the injury arises out of employment ensures a causal relationship between the injury and the job, and it is usually the employee’s burden to prove that an increased risk of the job caused a compensable injury.
There are three general categories of risks that determine whether an injury is compensable. The first type of risk is one that is associated directly with the employment, such as a when a roofer falls off a roof. An injury like this clearly arises out of employment and is always compensable.
The second category of risk involves personal risk. An example of personal risk is an employee with high blood pressure who suffers a stroke while on the job. Assuming nothing on the job caused the stroke, or assuming the stroke would have occurred notwithstanding the employment, the stroke would be considered personal rather than arising out of employment. Purely personal risks are not compensable.
It is more difficult to determine compensability with the third category of risk called neutral risk. Neutral risks are those that are neither distinctly personal nor distinct to the employment. Examples of neutral risks include a worker who has an allergic reaction to a bee sting sustained while on the job, or an employee who is struck by lightening while on the job. Whether neutral risks are compensable depends on the jurisdiction and the fact surrounding the injury and the job duties. In general, an employee trying to collect workers’ compensation must demonstrate that the job increased the risk of the injury and that the risk was greater than that to which the general public was exposed. The risk of being injured by lightning, for example, is greater for an employee working on the top of a metal communication tower than it is for the general public. Therefore, a lightning strike would be a compensable injury for that employee. Assault is another neutral risk injury. If a worker is assaulted on the job and injured, courts generally look at whether the nature of the job increased the risk of assault, such as the case of a prison guard. If an argument led to a workplace assault, the court would determine whether the argument was work-related or personal. Other common forms of neutral risk injuries include sunstroke, frostbite, heart attacks, and contagious diseases.
To be compensable, the injury must not only arise out of, but also in the course of, employment. This means that the injury must occur at the place of employment, while the employee is performing the job and within the period of employment. Employees who are injured while traveling to or from their jobs typically are not covered by workers’ compensation, although there are exceptions to that rule.