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Laser Printers In The Workplace: The Next Waive Of Claims?

July 03, 2007 BY Mike Bagley

            Recent media sources report that some home and office laser printers pose serious health risks and may spew out as much particulate matter as a cigarette smoker inhales.  With this technology ubiquitous,  and if the preliminary research holds true,  then it is only a matter of time before workers will be filing claims under the Workers’ Compensation Act,  and this article will analyze the potential preliminary issues.

Researchers Suggest Health Risks

            The recently released studies have measured particulate output of 62 laser printers, including models from name brands such as Canon, Hewlett-Packard and Ricoh. Particle emissions, believed to be toner -- the finely-ground powder used to form images and characters on paper -- were measured in an open office floor plan, then classified 17 of the 62 printers, or 27 percent, as "high particle emitters."  One of the 17 pumped out particulates at a rate comparable with emissions from cigarette smoking, the study said.

            Researchers called the emissions "a significant health threat" because of the particles' small size, which makes them easy to inhale and easily lodged in the deepest and smallest passageways of the lungs. The effects can range from simple irritation to much more serious illnesses, including cardiovascular problems or cancer.

            Two printers released medium levels of particulates, six issued low levels, and 37 -- or about 60 percent of those tested -- released no particles at all. HP, which is one of the world's leading printer sellers, dominated both the list of high-level emitting and non-emitting printers.  When contacted by PC World, the company issued this statement: "HP is currently reviewing the  . . . research on particle emission characteristics of office printers. Vigorous tests under standardized operating conditions are an integral part of HP's research and development and its strict quality control procedures.  As part of these quality controls, HP assesses its LaserJet printing systems, original HP print cartridges and papers for dust release and possible material emissions to ensure compliance with applicable international health and safety requirements."

            The research also found that office particulate levels increased fivefold during work hours because of laser printers.  Generally, more particles were emitted when the printer was using a new toner cartridge, and when printing graphics or photographs that require larger amounts of toner than, say, text.  Preliminary recommendations by researchers is that people make sure rooms at work and home with laser printers are well ventilated.

Workers’ Compensation Analysis:  Accident or Disease

            Assuming that this research is not refuted,  it may ultimately be validated by medical experts as the causal connection between the workplace and multiple physical maladies,  such as respiratory,  pulmonary or cardio-vascular problems,  and therefore,  the threshold issue will be whether such a claim will be treated as a “injury” or a “disease” for purposes of the Workers’ Compensation Act.

            Not all work‑related diseases qualify as a “occupational disease” under the Workers’ Compensation Act. See O.C.G.A. § 34‑9‑280, et seq.  For example, when an infection follows a job‑related injury, it is usually said to arise out of and in the course of employment and is, therefore, compensable.  However, the “injury” only includes a disease that results “naturally and unavoidably” from the work‑related accident.  United States Fidelity & Casualty Co. v. Maddox, 52 Ga. App. 416, 183 S.E. 570 (1935); Maryland Casualty Co. v. Brown, 48 Ga. App. 822, 173 S.E. 925 (1934). 

            In Colonial Stores, Inc. v. Hambrick, 176 Ga. App. 544, 336 S.E.2d 617 (1985), a worker with a preexisting lung disease suffered a compensable accident when his diseased condition was aggravated by his work duties, which included moving frozen foods into and out of a large freezer.  An employee need not show the time and place of an infection, but only that the infection resulted naturally from the injury and was unavoidable by reasonable care.  See United States Casualty Co. v. Smith, 162 Ga. 130, 133 S.E. 851 (1926).

            Under certain circumstances, diseases not manifesting themselves for some time after an actual on‑the‑job accident can still be compensable, as long as the claim is timely brought.  The limitation period is set out in O.C.G.A. § 34‑9‑281(b)(2).  In United States Asbestos v. Hammock, 140 Ga. App. 378, 231 S.E.2d 792 (1976), the employee last worked for the employer in 1966, yet was found to have a compensable disease aggravated by his employment which did not manifest itself until 1970.  The disease arose in the course of employment because it was the “end product of a force or cause set in motion” by his employment.  The court reached a different conclusion, however, in a case involving arthritis.  In Williams v. Travelers Ins. Co., 153 Ga. App. 443, 265 S.E.2d 354 (1980), the court held that the employee’s osteoarthritis, which required total hip replacement, did not result from the employee’s previous on‑the‑job injury, since the employee did not show that the injury contributed in any way to her need for total hip replacement.  Therefore, when the employer shows that the arthritic condition is a “natural part of the aging process,” and not the result of an actual injury, compensation will be denied.  See Speight v. Container Corp. of America, 138 Ga. App. 45, 225 S.E.2d 496 (1976).

            Georgia courts have therefore attempted to draw a line on the compensability of preâ€'existing diseases that are already deteriorating prior to the commencement of employment and do not, therefore, result in disability that arises out of and in the course of employment.  In one such case, an employee’s longâ€'standing degenerative back disease was found not to be workâ€'related, even though the employee pointed to a specific onâ€'theâ€'job aggravation in the form of pulling on a cable at work.  Compensation was denied based upon the Board’s finding that this activity could not be distinguished from any other, and that the employee’s condition would have deteriorated regardless of his work.  Argonaut Ins. Co. v. Cline, 142 Ga. App. 603, 236 S.E.2d 876 (1977).  As a rule of thumb, however, an employer must take the employee as it finds him, and must assume the risk of a diseased condition aggravated by an onâ€'theâ€'job injury.  Colonial Stores, Inc. v. Hambrick, 176 Ga. App. 544, 336 S.E.2d 617 (1985).

            A gray area of workers’ compensation law has resulted from attempts to delineate the difference between an “occupational injury” and “occupational disease.”  The provisions on occupational disease are unique in contrast to other provisions of the Workers’ Compensation Act.  Georgia courts occasionally have struggled with the distinction between an accidental injury subject to the “arising out of and in the course of employment” rules, and occupational diseases, which are subject to the provisions of O.C.G.A. §§ 34â€'9â€'280 -- 292.

Occupational Disease Statute

            Injuries for occupational disease are treated differently under the Act, and are compensable only if listed in the statute, or if the following criteria are met:

(1)        The employee shows a direct causal connection between the conditions under which the work is performed and the disease;

(2)        The disease follows as a natural incident of exposure by reason of the employment;

(3)        The disease is not of a character to which the employee may have had substantial exposure outside the employment;

(4)        The disease is not an ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed; and

(5)        The disease must appear to have had its origin in a risk connected with the employment and to have flowed from that source as a natural consequence.

            The Court of Appeals has underscored the provision that, to be compensable, an occupational disease may not be of a character to which the employee may have had substantial exposure outside the employment. In Fulton‑DeKalb Hosp. Auth. v. Bishop, 185 Ga. App. 771, 365 S.E.2d 549 (1988), an emergency medical technician filed a claim for benefits after contracting hepatitis B, an infectious viral disease.  The court reversed an award of benefits under the occupational disease statute, stating that,  “the only evidence of record in regard to [the occupational disease] criteria unrebuttedly established in this case that hepatitis B is of a character to which [the employee] may have had unknowing and substantial exposure outside of his employment and is an ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed.”  The employee had presented no evidence that any of the persons with whom he had contact at work during the incubation period for hepatitis B was a contagious carrier or victim of the disease.  Since the occupational disease statute requires the employee to prove all five of the criteria set forth in the statute, the failure to show that hepatitis B was not an ordinary disease of life to which the general public is exposed required the denial of benefits.

            A fairly straightforward example of a disease subject to the occupational disease statute is asbestosis.  A more difficult question arises, however, when the malady is not one that necessarily was contracted through a prolonged work‑related exposure.  In 1940, the Court of Appeals was faced with a situation in which the employee inhaled gas or fumes while performing a welding job, and became disabled seven weeks later from edema of the lungs.  The court held that this was not an occupational disease, but an accidental injury and was therefore compensable under the standard “arising out of and in the course of” analysis.  Lumbermen’s Mut. Casualty Co. v. Lynch, 63 Ga. App. 530, 11 S.E.2d 699 (1940). 

            The court reached the same conclusion in a single case involving three employees who were disabled as a result of inhaling carbon monoxide gas over a several hour period of employment.  The court held that this was not an occupational disease, but rather a compensable accidental injury.  Hopkins v. Employers Mut. Liab. Ins. Co., 103 Ga. App. 579, 120 S.E.2d 321 (1961).  An opposite result, however, was reached when an employee sustained an injury to his eyes because of exposure to sulfuric acid fumes over several years, with unusually high exposure over a three‑day period hastening his injury.  See Martin v. Tubize‑Chatillion Corp., 66 Ga. App. 481, 17 S.E.2d 915 (1942).  In Martin, the injury was subject to the occupational disease statute, even though the unusual exposure for three days hastened the onset of injury.

            However,  the mere fact that the injury complained of is defined as a “disease” does not necessitate the application of the occupational disease statute.  In Shore v. Pacific Employers Ins. Co., 102 Ga. App. 431, 116 S.E.2d 526 (1960), the employee contracted contact dermatitis, a skin disease, after skinning his hands at work and coming in contact with a certain cleaning agent.  This condition was an accidental injury, not an occupational disease.  Likewise, in Moone v. Liberty Mut. Ins. Co., 145 Ga. App. 629, 244 S.E.2d 148 (1978), the court reversed a decision of the Board that treated the employee’s inhalation of noxious fumes as an occupational disease.  However, the court remanded the case because the employee possibly could have recovered under an “accidental injury” theory, provided the injury was the result of a sudden inhalation of fumes as in Lynch.

            The cases seem to make clear that the occupational disease statute does not apply when the injury complained of is the result of sudden, as opposed to prolonged, exposure.  Therefore,  in the final analysis, there appears to be overwhelming authority to support the analysis as an occupational disease of any disease causally related to prolonged exposure to laser printer dust,  but this is literally the cutting edge of this story and there will undoubtedly be many revelations in the coming days.

The Journal is a publication for the clients of Drew Eckl & Farnham, LLP. It is written in a general format and is not intended to be legal advice to any specific circumstance. Legal Opinions may vary when based upon subtle factual differences. All rights reserved. 

Editorial Board:

H. Michael Bagley