Commonwealth Court Finds Ongoing Workers’ Compensation for Occupational Asthma Claim

The Commonwealth Court decided the case of Little v. WCAB (Select Specialty Hospital), on January 9, 2015. The Court held that a Claimant who develops asthma caused by exposure to chemicals at her work place is entitled to ongoing workers’ compensation benefits. This is an important decision because the Court, in the past, had found that disability caused by asthma from a work place exposure, ended once the workers’ symptoms ended and returned to her baseline condition. However, the Court through the Little case have modified their prior position.

Ms. Little was diagnosed with asthma that resulted from inhaling chemicals from wax used to clean the floors at her job. Though Ms. Little tried to return to her job several times, the chemicals from the wax continued to aggravate her asthma. Ms. Little was forced to seek another job. However, her new job was only part time and paid much less than her “time of injury job” did.

The Court decided that Ms. Little’s case was different from prior cases. In Bethlehem Steel Corporation v. WCAB (Baxter), a worker’s pre-existing asthma was aggravated when he inhaled paint fumes while working as a welder. The Commonwealth Court found that because his asthma returned to its baseline condition when he was not exposed to the fumes, he was not entitled to ongoing benefits. However, in Ms. Little’s case, her asthma was found to be caused by her exposure to chemicals at work by both her treating physician and the Employer’s medical expert. Any time she was re-exposed to chemicals, her symptoms returned. The Court reasoned that because Ms. Little had no history of asthma, and her symptoms would recur any time she was exposed to the chemicals, she could never return to her “baseline” condition as the Claimant in Bethlehem Steel. Based on this distinction, the Court awarded ongoing benefits to Ms. Little.