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Tying illnesses to workplace is hard, comp expert tells conference

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ORLANDO, Fla. — Determining whether an employee's illness is being caused by something in the workplace, making them eligible for workers compensation benefits, is a complicated and often inconclusive process.

Employers hire Rene Salazar to investigate whether an employee's condition is related to their workplace when they have pending comp claims or lawsuits, the Tampa-based University of South Florida professor and microbiologist said Monday at the Workers' Compensation Institute conference in Orlando, Florida.

Employees will often complain that they never feel well at work, that they have frequent colds or upper respiratory ailments or allergy-like symptoms that they attribute to their workplaces, Mr. Salazar said.

But they could have pre-existing allergy or other conditions that cause or contribute to their feeling unwell, he said.

Buildings constructed in the last four or five years often use mechanical ventilation systems and have no other access to outside air, which could be causing or contributing to the condition, he said.

Identifying a potential cause of a workplace illness, however, does not necessarily mean the workplace is causing the specific employee's illness or make a claim valid.

“Mere presence does not constitute exposure,” he said. “Does it increase the probability or the likelihood? Yes. Just because it's there doesn't mean the exposure occurred.”

Mr. Salazar undertakes a “ruling in” or “ruling out” process that rarely leads to a definitive answer because so many variables may contribute to the employee's condition, Mr. Salazar said.

“Only infrequently am I able to say yes or no without any qualifiers,” Mr. Salazar said.

Part of this process is trying to identify unique workplace conditions that may be causing or contributing to the illness, such as an extraordinary amount of dust or chemicals.

“To rule out the workplace, I have to be able to say there are no exposure agents, there are no pathways to exposure, this workplace is typical of any other workplace that does the same thing,” he said.

And the employee may be having a delayed reaction to something outside of the workplace, for example, passing a construction site or something in their home, which Mr. Salazar is often hired to investigate.

In one case, he visited the home of an employee claiming she was exposed to elevated levels of volatile organic chemicals at work and discovered the employee had numerous hair product-related VOCs in the bedroom.

“Always remember, it ain't just the workplace,” Mr. Salazar said. “You should go to these nonworkplace scenarios and settings. That might be very revealing.”

That home visit occurred under court order, which he said is generally the case. “I don't know if there is ever a voluntary one,” Mr. Salazar said. “I have seen cases dropped because of that.”

But when he does identify potential causes of workplace illnesses, a dirty carpet, perhaps, he advises employers to get rid of such items.