Mental health injuries are no less real than physical injuries. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for injured workers to get full and fair benefits for mental health conditions. In fact, under Washington’s workers’ compensation laws (RCW 51.08.142), mental conditions caused by stress are excluded from the state’s definition of an occupational disease.
This is changing for first responders. The Washington legislature recently passed a law that will allow firefighters, law enforcement officers, and emergency medical personnel to recover workers’ compensation benefits for job-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that developed gradually over time. Here, our experienced Seattle workers’ compensation attorneys highlight the most important things that first responders in Washington need to know about this new law.
There is a Difference Between an ‘Occupational Disease’ and an ‘Injury’
The Washington Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) classifies all workers’ compensation claims as either ‘injuries’ or ‘occupational diseases’. Under the state’s workers’ compensation laws (RCW 51.08.100), an injury is defined as something that occurred in a single incident. The adverse effects of the incident must be sudden, tangible, and the victim must feel an immediate impact. A simple example of this would be a workplace fall that results in an employee suffering a broken hip.
In contrast, an occupational disease is a condition that occurs or develops slowly over time. There are many different examples of occupational diseases that may be covered under Washington’s workers’ compensation law such as repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) caused by overuse, or asthma resulting from breathing toxic air.
The Law Creates a Presumption that PTSD is Caused by Cumulative Stress
Before this law was enacted, PTSD was excluded from the definition that L&I used to assess occupational diseases. In other words, a Seattle police officer who developed PTSD slowly after many years of facing traumatic events on patrol would likely not have been eligible for workers’ compensation benefits on the basis of this condition.
Under the new law, an exception has been made for eligible first responders. These workers may collect workers’ compensation benefits for PTSD that developed over a period of time.
Notably, the law creates a rebuttable presumption that PTSD is a work-related occupational disease. This is a very important point. For first responders, the fact that PTSD is assumed to be work-related makes the workers’ compensation claims process less challenging. The law shifts the burden of proof from the injured worker to the department or self-insured employer.
First Responders Must Serve for Ten Years to Benefit From the Presumption
It is important to note one of the key limitations in the law: the rebuttable presumption only applies to eligible first responders who have been on the job for at least ten years. A first responder who has developed PTSD as an occupational disease can still make a claim for benefits. However, the first responder does not get the benefit of the rebuttable presumption.
PTSD Caused By an ‘Injury’ Was and Remains an Allowable Condition
To clarify, Washington workers who develop PTSD as a result of a single traumatic work-related event can claim workers’ compensation benefits. This was true before the new law was passed, and it remains true. PTSD that is caused by a single traumatic event may still be allowed for both first responders and for all other Washington workers.
This new law only affects PTSD as an occupational disease, which describes PTSD that developed over time and that cannot be traced to any single event. Now, first responders who develop PTSD as an occupational disease may be able to obtain workers’ compensation benefits. This is a much needed change to Washington’s regulations. First responders are forced to deal with an incredible amount of stress and trauma in serving our communities. There are undoubtedly many first responders all across our state who are dealing with PTSD that is related to their employment.
Get Help From Our Washington Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Today
At The Walthew Law Firm, our seasoned workers’ compensation attorneys are dedicated advocates for our clients. If you need help with a work-related PTSD claim, please do not hesitate to contact our legal team for a free, no obligation review of your case. From our offices in Seattle and Everett, we serve injured workers throughout Washington, including in Bellevue, Tacoma, Renton, Kent, Kirkland, Redmond, and Federal Way.