What is the difference between Industrial Work Injury and Occupational Disease?

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Many people do not realize that there are two kinds of workers’ compensation claims in Washington State: An industrial injury claim and occupational disease claim. Occupational disease, which we sometimes call workplace illness, develop over time. Often, work injury claimants must present arguments to decide if an industrial injury claim should be an occupational disease claim. However, there’s a lot of misinformation and confusion in L&I and workers’ compensation claims whenever it comes to work-illness claims.

Occupational disease claim

If we go to trial to allow a workplace illness claim, then we must present jury instructions. Specifically, jury members receive instructions that lay out the meaning of occupational disease. More explicitly, the pattern jury instruction for occupational disease states:

1) “An occupational disease is a disease or infection that arises naturally and proximately out of the worker’s employment.”

2) “A disease arises naturally out of employment if the disease comes about as a matter of course as a natural consequence of the distinctive conditions of the worker’s employment. It is not necessary that the conditions be peculiar to, or unique to, the particular employment.”

3) “A disease does not arise naturally out of employment if it is caused by conditions of everyday life or all employments in general. A disease arises proximately out of employment if the conditions of the worker’s employment proximately caused or aggravated the worker’s disease including the aggravation of a pre-existing non-work-related disease.”

No wonder there is so much confusion! Let me try to explain this more simply. Occupational disease is when distinctive conditions of the worker’s employment cause or aggravate (at least in part) your medical condition. For example, say that you work in sheet metal. Furthermore, say that you spend significant portions of each day repetitively and forcefully snipping sheets of metal with snips. Gradually, eventually you develop numbness and tingling in your hands. Here, you may be experiencing a workplace illness condition.


L&I rejects occupational disease claims very often. Most frequently, it’s because the doctor lacks enough accurate information to provide a compelling opinion for claim allowance. Therefore, if you believe you have a workplace illness claim, I suggest you start by seeing a doctor. First, you have to understand whether your symptoms correlate with a medical diagnosis. Then, it’s important to provide a clear history of the onset and development of symptoms. On top, it’s critical to convey key accurate details about the physical demands of your job. This will help your doctor formulate an opinion on the basis of correlation between work activities, symptoms and the resulting diagnosis. Finally, following this process significantly increases the likelihood of your occupational disease L&I claim allowance.

Additional resources: The Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) website.