What first responders should know about workers’ compensation in North Carolina
Firefighters, police officers and first responders in North Carolina face a great many dangers in the line of duty. Along with the potential for injury, they are also at risk for developing diseases due to exposure to certain chemicals while at work as well as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In recent years, there have been a number of high-profile court cases nationwide dealing with the benefits to which such workers may be entitled, including psychological and medical treatment, as a result of the dangers experienced while on the job.
Generally speaking, workers’ compensation applies to those who are employed by a company, organization or government agency. This coverage extends to firefighters, police department members and organized rescue squad members.
Expanding PTSD coverage for firefighters, police officers and first responders
Firefighters, police officers and first responders may have significant medical expenses in the event of an injury or if they develop a disease due to their work. In such cases, they may be unable to return to work temporarily or at all. Family members may also be left behind to face significant emotional and financial burdens in the case of a fatal injury.
Due to the potential for such challenges, these workers have continued to fight for expanded coverage beyond what most injured workers can receive from workers’ compensation. Recently, H.B. 492 was passed in the N.C. House of Representatives. If this bill is made law, it would make it possible for law enforcement officers, first responders and firefighters to obtain benefits when they experience psychological trauma as part of their jobs.
Although it had been previously established that employees in North Carolina may seek benefits for physical injuries and mental illness, this bill would list PTSD as an occupational disease for which workers can be compensated when employed by local and state governments. In order to qualify for benefits, the worker would need to be examined by a healthcare provider and diagnosed with PTSD.
Furthermore, it would need to be established that the worker’s PTSD was the result of employment activities. Should this bill go into law, it would remove legal hurdles that first responders previously had faced when demonstrating that they were at a greater risk than the general public of developing PTSD as a result of their occupational activities.
North Carolina cancer presumption laws
Along with PTSD, first responders, firefighters and police officers may also be at increased exposure to carcinogens and toxins. This has made the risk of developing cancer a growing concern amongst firefighters, in particular, in recent years.
In fact, research has shown that firefighters have a greater risk of developing certain types of cancer, including mesothelioma. Consequently, presumption laws have now been passed in many states to provide greater protection for firefighters diagnosed with cancer.
North Carolina lawmakers have been working since 2007 to obtain such presumptive cancer coverage. Although none of these laws have been passed to date, if passed, these laws would assist firefighters in obtaining such benefits as workers’ compensation and larger disability pensions. These laws would also make it easier for loved ones to obtain death benefits. Among these bills is House Bill 520, which passed in the House in 2019, but later stalled in the North Carolina Senate.
Under this bill, 9 cancers were listed as occupational diseases, including:
- Intestinal cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Brain cancer
- Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
- Multiple myeloma
- Rectal cancer
- Oral cavity cancer
- Testicular cancer
Unfortunately, until these bills actually do become law, these workers are often left trying to pay for the cost of the medical treatment out of pocket.
Compensation for first responders injured on duty
Under North Carolina law, protections are provided when police officers or emergency responders experience injuries or are killed while on the job. Such workers, along with their surviving loved ones, have a right to receive workers’ compensation benefits.
In the event a police officer isn’t able to work due to an occupational injury or illness, the worker would be eligible to receive a percentage of their average weekly income that they received up to the date of injury. In situations in which the worker is permanently disabled and unable to return to work, the worker may also be eligible for permanent disability benefits. Workers are also entitled to receive payment for medical treatments.
If you or a loved one have experienced an occupational injury that has resulted in lost work time, it’s important to consult with a workers’ compensation attorney to ensure you understand your legal options. This is particularly important if your employer attempts to dispute your claim and right to benefits.