Illness as injury: industrial disease

A personal injury doesn’t just refer to the visible physical wounds sustained in an unexpected accident. There are times when a personal injury covers an illness that could take decades to develop.

These sorts of health problems are usually the result of exposure to a hazardous substance at work, making them industrial diseases.

Although you might not be able to see the effects of what has happened immediately, an industrial disease or illness is legally as much a personal injury as being hit by a car or slipping on a wet floor.

The issue of preventability

Illness often can’t be avoided. Although there are risk factors for most diseases, in many cases, their development can’t be predicted. Cancer Research UK explains that although being healthy can make getting cancer “less likely”, you can’t ensure you don’t develop it.

This is the opposite of accidents, which are usually entirely preventable – often down to a momentary lapse in concentration or an oversight. So it may seem nonsensical for an illness to be considered in the same category as an accident.

However, an illness that develops as a result of someone’s work is one that could be considered preventable. It was their exposure to the hazard during their working life that caused the disease to develop. And since an employer is responsible for ensuring a worker’s safety, this becomes a failure in their duty of care.

Common industrial diseases

Respiratory illness is one of the most common forms of industrial disease. It covers a range of illnesses – from lung cancer to mesothelioma, COPD to pleural thickening.

According to the Health and Safety Executive: “Overall there are currently approximately 12,000 deaths each year due to occupational respiratory diseases, about two-thirds of which are due to asbestos-related diseases or COPD.”

The professionals most likely to go on to develop serious respiratory illnesses include:

  • Construction workers
  • Welders
  • Agricultural workers
  • Quarry workers
  • Stone workers
  • Workers in foundries

In addition to respiratory illnesses, workers in certain industries could find that they end up suffering from conditions including dermatitis, noise-induced hearing loss, musculoskeletal disorders, and repetitive strain injury, among others.

Even though a work-related illness might not be immediately obvious – one might not even realise they’re ill for many years. But the fact remains that an employer should make sure they’re doing everything they reasonably can to keep the people working for them safe.

When they don’t, there could be consequences for everyone involved.

Image copyright: Gorodenkoff