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Inhalation Injury and the Notice Requirement under the Illinois Workers Compensation Act

The Appellate Court for the Fourth District of Illinois reversed the judgment of the Circuit Court and Illinois Worker's Compensation Commission on all issues in a case involving an inhalation injury, but most notable was reversal of the finding that the claimant had not provided notice of the work injury to his employer within 45 days, which is required by the Illinois Workers Compensation Act.

The claimant began working as a grain elevator on July 28, 2010. As a grain elevator operator, he cleaned large grain flats that contained debris and bird droppings. In performing his job, the claimant breathed in a significant amount of airborne dust. After beginning employment at the grain elevator, he began to experience symptoms such as weakness, cough, chest pains, and shortness of breath. On August 26, 2010, his symptoms spread to his hands and feet. On September 1, 2010, the claimant told his manager that his doctor told him to avoid the dust due to the symptoms he had been experiencing. This was considered to be his last day of employment. The claimant did not learn the full extent of his injury until October 4, 2010 when he was diagnosed with histoplasmosis, a lung disease often caused by exposure to bird droppings. The IWCC did not find the September 1, 2010 communication to be sufficient notice, and therefore the claimant did not meet the requirements of the 45 day notice.

The Appellate Court found notice under the Act, but stated it could have found notice under a "manifestation date" analysis used in cases where the exact date of injury is impossible to determine, such as in repetitive trauma cases.

The Court found the claimant gave as much notice as he could to the employer regarding his injury when he told his manager he could no longer work on September 1, 2010. The notice requirement does not require the claimant to inform the employer of an injury diagnosis that he is unaware of, which he didn't learn until October 4, 2010. The court found the claimant's notice on September 1, 2010 deficient as to whether or not the accident involved the work-place, however it is the employer's burden to demonstrate it was unduly prejudiced as a result, which it did not.

When a diagnosis occurs in the future, making a date of injury impossible to identify, the Court suggested using the "manifestation date," which requires notice to be given within 45 days from the injury is known to the employee, and he can reasonably conclude or it is reasonably apparent it happened in the work-place. Peoria County Bellwood Nursing Home v. Industrial Comm'n, 505 N.E.2d 1026, 1029 (1987). Here, his problems began shortly after he began working, which could have been on any day between July 28, 2010 and August 26, 2010, and a diagnosis was not given until October 4, 2010. The employee would never be able to pinpoint the precise date the airborne dust injured him.

If an employee has been exposed to inhalants that causes injury, the notice requirement is 45 days after a reasonable person could connect the symptoms to the airborne exposure.

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