It can be tricky to determine if a breathing problem is caused by work, particularly when workers’ comp benefits hang in the balance. In this case, cleaning chemicals were in question.
Keith Sandell worked for 12 years at a Frito Lay plant in New York that produces corn, potato and other snacks. He stopped working in March 2010 because he experienced acute respiratory problems.
Sandell said his breathing problems were caused by workplace exposure to seasonings and chemicals. The seasonings were airborne in the plant, and his cleaning duties required him to work with compounds, acids and foaming agents that created hazardous fumes.
After he stopped working, Sandell’s condition improved. He applied for workers’ compensation benefits.
Frito Lay denied the claim. A Workers’ Compensation Law Judge found Sandell suffered from an occupational illness and awarded benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Board upheld the finding.
The company took its case to a state appeals court.
Reasonable certainty good enough?
To prove his pulmonary condition was eligible for comp benefits, Sandell had to “establish a recognizable link between his condition and a distinctive feature of his occupation through the submission of competent medical evidence.”
Sandell’s pulmonologist testified with a reasonable degree of medical certainty that the “most probable cause” of his condition was prolonged workplace exposure to chemicals and seasonings.
Frito Lay’s expert didn’t rule out a workplace cause, but he wanted more testing to determine the exact cause.
Sandell’s doctor said more testing wouldn’t be precise enough to identify the exact substance causing his condition.
The Workers’ Compensation Board credited the medical evidence from Sandell’s pulmonologist, including that his “condition waxed and waned depending upon the amount of time he spent at work.”
The appeals court noted that it had previously ruled that a “claimant’s failure to identify the specific allergen or contaminant responsible for his or her ailments is not fatal to the underlying claim.” In other words, it’s not necessary to pinpoint the exact substance that was causing breathing difficulty.
For that reason, the court upheld the board’s award of workers’ comp benefits to Sandell.
What do you think about this case? Let us know in the comments.
(Keith Sandell v. Frito Lay, Appellate Div. of the Supreme Crt. of New York, 3rd Dept., No. 515418, 12/26/13)