Lawmakers Consider Workers’ Compensation Illness Expansion

Lawmakers Consider Workers’ Compensation Illness Expansion

Bills in both the State House and Senate would allow Florida workers, especially first responders, suffering from job-related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to file workers’ compensation claims.

Dr. Deborah Beidel, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, says that many first responders are exposed to conditions and events like those commonly experienced in war zones, such as the Pulse Nightclub mass shooting. Current law does not define PTSD as an “injury,” a definition which goes against the great weight and preponderance of the current scientific evidence, according to Dr. Beidel. Furthermore, Dr. Beidel predicts that reclassifying PTSD would remove the stigma of this condition and empower victims to seek treatment without fear of reprisal. Opponents have some concerns, chiefly that there is no diagnostic test that identifies PTSD, creating opportunities for scammers and fakers.

Meanwhile, the Orlando Police Department is threatening to fire Gerry Realin, an officer who developed PTSD in the wake of the Pulse shooting, because he refuses to accept a light duty assignment. Mr. Realin says his doctors advised him not to work as a policeman anymore, and he is taking that advice literally. But his superiors disagree. Deputy Chief Orlando Rolon said that the officer could be fired for “insubordination” if he does not accept the assignment.

Mr. Realin’s situation has been widely cited by Florida decisionmakers who are looking to change the law.

The Changing Nature of PTSD

Many people know that when PTSD first appeared in World War I, doctors dismissed it as “shell shock.” The prevailing thinking was that victims just needed a few days or weeks away from the front and they would be fine. That attitude persisted throughout the war and beyond, even though four-fifths of PTSD victims could not return to the front.

Today, researchers understand that combat-like stress erodes the amygdala, which is the region of the brain that controls emotional responses. So, PTSD is not just a processing disorder or a random condition that affects some people but not others. That is why PTSD victims suffer from symptoms like:

  • Heightened Awareness: Many victims cannot distinguish between the cocking of a gun and the starting of a lawnmower, and they react to each stimulus in the same way.
  • Flashbacks: This is one of the classic PTSD symptoms. Since their amygdalas are smaller, victims cannot process their emotions in a normal way.
  • Trouble Sleeping: The flashbacks continue at night, forcing many victims to use strong sleep aids and other powerful prescription drugs.

All these symptoms, and others like them, make it very difficult to function and stay on common, everyday tasks.

As a result of this research, the Canadian Armed Forces replaced the PTSD label with OSI (Operational Stress Injury), and military OSI victims are now eligible for the Canada Sacrifice Medal, which is the equivalent of a Purple Heart. Canadian officials have worked hard to help OSI victims recover to the greatest extent possible because there is no cure for PTSD. Once brain cells die, they never regenerate.

Covered Workers’ Compensation Illnesses

Although most all researchers agree that PTSD is a physical illness as opposed to a processing disorder, they are divided as to the exposure level required to bring about PTSD. From one perspective, Officer Realin’s experience seems to suggest that one particularly severe stress event is enough to trigger PTSD. On the other hand, Officer Realin probably experienced combat-like stress during his time on an anti-drug task force, and the Pulse Nightclub event may have been more akin to the straw that broke the camel’s back.

If PTSD comes after repeated, long-term exposure, it is the quintessential occupational disease. These conditions come about due to repeated exposure to a certain activity during work hours. OHL (Operational Hearing Loss) is the most common occupational disease. 22 million workers are exposed to high noise levels at work, and 9 million others are exposed to chemical substances that have a similar effect. About one in five of these individual develop serious hearing loss at some point in their careers. Some other common occupational diseases include:

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress disorders,
  • Joint pain from persistent bending or stooping, and
  • Respiratory problems.

Many occupational diseases may have both work and non-work causes. For example, a worker may develop joint pain by lifting boxes in a warehouse and lifting her children at home. Under current law, the victim has the burden of proof to show that at least 51% of the current injury is work related.

To start your claim for benefits based on an occupational disease, contact Barnett, Lerner, Karsen & Frankel.