Occupational exposures pose a significant risk to first responders as a result of the hazardous nature of the job. Exposure to communicable diseases, smoke, dust, debris, hazardous chemicals, noise and diesel exhaust fumes are just some of the risks. To receive workers’ compensation benefits for an injury or condition caused by an exposure on the job, scientific evidence must demonstrate a connection between your injury and what you are exposed to.
The two main requirements for an occupational exposure claim are (1) proof that you were exposed to a harmful condition and (2) that the harmful condition can cause a specific type of disability.
The Supreme Court of New Jersey has ruled that first responders are entitled to workers’ compensation benefits for occupational exposures, even when they can’t prove the exposure at work is the only cause of a condition. In the case of a firefighter of 23 years with emphysema, the Supreme Court held he was entitled to benefits even though he couldn’t prove his exposure to smoke and harmful substances was worse than the damage to his lungs from cigarette smoking. Emphysema is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), in which the air sacs walls in the lungs can be destroyed from smoke exposure, but there were no scientific studies proving a 100% connection between smoke inhalation by a firefighter and emphysema. The Court held that even though cigarette smoking is a common cause of emphysema, the exposure to smoke, hazardous waste, chemicals and gases experienced by first responders on the job would contribute to the development of pulmonary emphysema.
Occupational exposure claims require proof that the work exposure probably contributed to a disabling injury. There must be sufficient scientific evidence to support a finding that the specific exposure at work is a material cause of an injury or condition. You don’t have to show that an exposure is the one and only cause of a disabling condition.
The Supreme Court has cited a study of first responders exposed to a variety of inhaled materials during and after the collapse of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. The Supreme Court noted that many of the people experiencing breathing problems had normal chest x-rays and normal pulmonary function studies. The Court recognizes that sufficient data exists to show airway obstruction, such as emphysema, can occur despite these normal studies, as a result of the types of exposures first responders experienced as a result of 9/11.
The exception to this standard involves cases of occupationally induced heart problems. The exposure at work must be greater than any personal risk factors.