Is Covid-19 an occupational disease?

Examining the Link: Covid-19 and Occupational Disease

During a recent verdict following an inquest into the cause of the deaths of two nurses from Covid-19, the senior coroner for South Wales Central declared that the cause of death was a result of having been exposed to the Covid-19 virus. This resulted from their occupation and should therefore be recorded as an industrial disease. In this case, both nurses were in their 60s, and one had type 2 diabetes.

This is believed to be the first known case in which the link between the disease and the workplace has been formally recognised.

Industrial (or, more accurately, occupational) diseases are when a person is diagnosed with an adverse health condition that can be strongly associated with their work. Currently prescribed diseases include carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injury, dermatitis, hand-arm vibration syndrome, asthma and tendonitis. Such a diagnosis has to be reported to the relevant enforcing authority (the HSE or local authority) under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR) entitles employees and their dependants to protection and compensation if they contracted the condition while at work.

The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council (IIAC) is responsible for advising the Secretary of State for Social Security on the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme, including the prescribed diseases for which benefit may be paid. For most diseases, it is relatively straightforward to establish that the cause of the disease was due to an individual’s occupation and not due to other exposure, such as a result of a pastime. Given the apparent ease with which Covid-19 can be contracted, it is much more difficult to show that an individual had contracted it as a result of their job.

Fortunately for a prospective claimant, the standard of proof required is the civil standard, namely “on a balance of probabilities”, which means, in this case, the contraction of the disease was more likely than not to have been caused by work.

Not surprisingly, healthcare workers are at higher risk of the effects of Covid 19 than other occupations. The HSE has reported that the 2021/22 Labour Force Survey shows that workers employed in health/social care had the highest rate of new and long-standing work-related ill health caused or made worse by the effects of the pandemic. The rate (per 100,000 workers) was double that of all workers.

On 1 April 2022, revised guidance on RIDDOR reporting requirements for COVID-19 was issued, requiring cases of COVID-19 that were due to either deliberately working with the virus (such as in a laboratory) or being incidentally exposed to the virus from working in environments where people are known to have COVID-19 (for example in health and social care) are reportable.

The verdict of the South Wales Central Coroner does not, as such, permit claims to be brought; however, the IIAC is continuing to review the situation and may well refer to the decision in their next report to the government as to whether Covid-19 should in certain circumstances be deemed to be a prescribed disease.

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Dr David Wenham

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