How do SC’s workers’ compensation laws define “injury” or “personal injury?”
If you are “injured” on the job, you are entitled to compensation, but only if your injury meets the definitions found in SC law – some types of injuries are specifically excluded, while others are only considered a workers’ compensation injury if certain conditions are met…
Below, we will look at the definition of injury in SC’s workers’ comp laws and the different types of injuries that are covered, including:
- The definition of injury in SC’s workers’ compensation laws,
- Stress, mental injuries, and mental illness,
- Repetitive trauma, and
- Occupational diseases.
How is Injury Defined in SC’s Workers’ Compensation Laws?
SC Code Section 42-1-160 defines “injury” and “personal injury” as an “accident arising out of and in the course of employment…”
So, as a starting point, it is only considered an “injury” for purposes of workers’ comp when it:
- Was accidental, and
- Arose out of and in the course of employment.
It’s easy to say that a physical injury that happened on the job is covered by workers’ comp, and that’s what most people think of when they think of workers’ compensation – falls, crushed legs, hands, or arms, machinery accidents, forklift accidents, and other types of physical injury.
It gets more complicated when an injury suffered on the job is not physical, or when the injury is caused by a series of events that happen over time rather than a single traumatic accident.
How do SC’s workers’ compensation laws define “injury” when it is not a physical injury caused by a single event?
Repetitive Trauma May be an Injury Under SC Workers’ Compensation Law
Is repetitive trauma an “accident?”
An “accident” for purposes of workers’ compensation usually means a single event that causes injury to the employee. But, in some cases, a series of events can also result in a compensable injury.
For example, Code Section 42-1-160(F) says:
The word “accident” as used in this title must not be construed to mean a series of events in employment, of a similar or like nature, occurring regularly, continuously, or at frequent intervals in the course of such employment, over extended periods of time. Any injury or disease attributable to such causes must be compensable only if culminating in a compensable repetitive trauma injury pursuant to Section 42-1-172 or an occupational disease pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 11 of this title.
A series of events – like the repetitive motion of pulling a lever, operating a machine, or typing on a keyboard – can result in “a compensable repetitive trauma injury pursuant to Section 42-1-172,” which defines repetitive trauma as:
…an injury which is gradual in onset and caused by the cumulative effects of repetitive traumatic events. Compensability of a repetitive trauma injury must be determined only under the provisions of this statute.
For a repetitive trauma injury like carpal tunnel syndrome to be compensable, you must have medical testimony that establishes a causal connection between your work duties and the injury.
Occupational Disease is an Injury Under SC Workers’ Compensation Law
Occupational disease can also be caused by a series of events – Code Section 42-1-160(F) also says that a disease caused by exposure to chemicals or harmful particles in the workplace is an “injury” caused by an “accident,” even though it is the result of a series of events (exposures), if it is “an occupational disease pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 11 of this title.”
SC Code Section 42-11-10 defines “occupational disease” as:
…a disease arising out of and in the course of employment that is due to hazards in excess of those ordinarily incident to employment and is peculiar to the occupation in which the employee is engaged. A disease is considered an occupational disease only if caused by a hazard recognized as peculiar to a particular trade, process, occupation, or employment as a direct result of continuous exposure to the normal working conditions of that particular trade, process, occupation, or employment…
A disease is not an occupational disease if it:
- Does not result from exposure to “hazards peculiar to the particular employment,”
- Results from “outside climatic conditions,”
- Is a contagious disease and the risk of exposure is no greater on the job than off the job,
- Is an “ordinary disease of life to which the general public is equally exposed,” unless the disease exposure is a hazard of that occupation,
- Is a cardiac, pulmonary, or circulatory disease unless it results from exposure under “circumstances peculiar to the employment and the processes utilized therein,” or
- Is “a chronic disease of the skeletal joints.”
When an occupational disease “was contracted by the employee while in the employ of the employer as a direct result of the employment,” SC Code Section 42-11-40 makes it clear that it is an injury for purposes of workers’ compensation laws:
…the disablement or death of an employee resulting from an occupational disease shall be treated as an injury by accident and the employee, or in case of death his dependents, shall be entitled to compensation as for an injury under this title…
Stress, Heart Attacks, Strokes, Mental Injuries, and Mental Illness
SC Code Section 42-1-160(B) says that stress, mental injuries, and mental illness, if they are not accompanied by a physical injury, are not an “injury” for purposes of workers’ compensation unless:
- The conditions that caused the stress, mental injury, or mental illness were extraordinary and unusual for the type of work performed, and
- Medical evidence proves that the stressful work conditions caused the injury.
Subsection (C) also says that “Stress, mental injuries, heart attacks, strokes, embolisms, or aneurisms,” when not accompanied by a physical injury, are not compensable under workers’ compensation law if they are caused by normal employee/employer relations including:
- Personnel actions,
- Disciplinary actions,
- Work evaluations,
- Promotions or demotions,
- Salary reviews, or
However, if the personnel actions are not normal – if they are taken in an extraordinary and unusual manner – it may be compensable.
What if Stress, Mental Injury, or Mental Illness is Aggravated by a Physical Injury?
Subsection (D) says that stress, mental injuries, and mental illness that have been aggravated by a work-related injury are not compensable unless:
- The aggravation is admitted by the employer and insurance company,
- An authorized physician or the employee’s physician notes in the medical records that the condition was caused by the physical injury, or
- A psychiatrist or psychologist finds that the condition was caused by the physical injury.
So, 1) stress, mental injuries, mental illness, heart attacks, or stroke may be considered an injury – without an accompanying physical injury – as defined by the workers’ compensation laws if they meet the requirements above, and 2) they may be compensable as a separate injury when accompanied by a physical injury if a causal link is established by medical evidence.
If you have an on-the-job injury in SC, the Myrtle Beach Workers’ Compensation attorneys at Axelrod and Associates can help you to determine whether your injuries meet the definition of “injury” and “accident” under SC’s workers’ compensation laws, file your claim, gather and present your medical evidence, and file any necessary appeals.