A metal worker who claimed to have contracted COVID-19 on the job can’t pursue workers’ compensation benefits since he couldn’t prove his risk of exposure was greater at work than it was in any other public space.
In Yeager v. Arconic, the Ohio Court of Appeals found the worker failed to prove COVID-19 was an occupational disease even though he worked in close proximity with someone who tested positive for, and was showing symptoms of, the disease.
Co-worker tests positive
On March 20, 2020, the worker was assigned to a furnace pulpit with a co-worker for about a half an hour. Neither wore masks and because of the size of the pulpit there was no way to practice social distancing.
During the shift, the co-worker began to feel sick and went to the plant nurse for treatment. The co-worker later tested positive for COVID-19. The worker who later filed for benefits was placed in quarantine the next day and began experiencing symptoms a week later. He tested positive for COVID-19 on March 28, 2020.
The worker filed a claim under the state Workers’ Compensation Fund for COVID-19 infection exposure, which was granted by a staff hearing officer and contested by the employer.
On appeal with a county court, the employer argued the worker wasn’t entitled to benefits because:
- exposure to COVID-19 isn’t a compensable diagnosis
- the worker didn’t sustain a workplace injury, and
- he didn’t develop an occupational disease in the course of, and arising out of, his employment.
Based on testimony regarding the exposure from the worker’s own doctor, the court agreed with the employer and granted it summary judgment.
Supreme Court definition determining factor
On appeal with the state appeals court, the worker argued there was a genuine issue of material fact as to whether his COVID-19 infection was a compensable occupational disease because his doctor’s testimony was inconsistent on the issue.
The court said the Ohio Supreme Court determined that occupational diseases must be:
- contracted in the course of employment
- peculiar to the worker’s employment “by its causes and the characteristics of its manifestation or the conditions of employment result in a hazard” which distinguishes the employment from general employment, and
- a greater risk through the employment “and in a different manner than in the public generally.”
Working in ‘close proximity’ isn’t enough
The worker argued COVID-19 was peculiar to his employment and that he was at greater risk of contracting it than the general public because he was required to work in close proximity to an infected co-worker.
According to the court, even if the close proximity argument was sufficient to create an issue of fact, which it wasn’t, then there still wasn’t sufficient evidence to establish the third requirement since COVID-19 was “a common illness to which the general public is exposed.” Which means COVID-19 isn’t compensable as an occupational disease, in this case.
In short, because the worker couldn’t prove his employment as a furnace operator created more of a risk and in a different manner for him than for the general public, his COVID-19 exposure couldn’t be considered compensable.