Can an employee who claimed he contracted silicosis from running an abrasion machine for three shifts get workers’ compensation benefits?
The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals upheld a denial of the claim after finding that medical evidence supported a diagnosis that the employee’s breathing problems were caused by prior health issues, not silicosis.
Treating doctor finds acute silicosis
In Jonathan Auffant v. Manpower, the employee claimed he had worked three shifts running an abrasion machine that sanded silica off of metal parts. He stated that the machine blew silica everywhere and that the breathing protection he was provided with was “very thin.”
On July 20, 2018, during his fourth shift with the abrasion machine, he developed difficulty breathing and swelling in his feet. The treating doctor diagnosed acute silicosis from exposure to silica dust. A chest CT scan and x-ray revealed a number of health problems, including possible exacerbation of chronic heart failure and pneumonia. Medical records showed the employee had suffered an acute kidney injury in the past, and was a smoker who also drank about six beers per day.
In September 2018, after months of treatment, the employee’s doctor found his breathing had gotten better and another CT scan revealed “no evidence of suspicious nodules or infiltrates.” The doctor’s diagnosis was still silicosis from a significant silica exposure but he was unable to diagnose acute silicosis, citing the employee’s rapid improvement for support of his reasoning.
Independent exam: No sign of silica in lungs
On January 10, 2019, an independent medical examination found that the employee no longer had breathing problems, shortness of breath, cough or wheezing. The doctor who conducted this exam believed the employee never had acute silicosis because she found no sign of a specific protein in his lungs, which is typically caused by the disease. She also noted that “most cases of acute silicosis result in rapid death.” This doctor believed the employee’s breathing problems resulted from his other health issues and the prior kidney injury, which wasn’t work-related.
The West Virginia Office of Judges denied the workers’ compensation claim the employee filed for silicosis, citing the medical evidence from the independent medical examination.
Evidence supports independent exam diagnosis
On appeal, the employee argued that he had silicosis based on his workplace exposure and the results of the first doctor’s diagnosis.
However, the appeals court upheld the denial after finding that the medical evidence pointed to a misdiagnosis from the treating doctor. The independent doctor’s findings were supported by the results from the CT scans, x-rays and other tests, according to the court.