The Difference Between Workers' Compensation and Occupational Medicine

Lauryn Page

The mention of workers’ compensation or occupational medicine conjures up images of debilitating injuries and payroll assistance. However, a majority of people believe that these two terms are interchangeable. In fact, there is a difference between workers’ compensation and occupational medicine. While workers’ compensation will help pay your bills, occupational medicine will get an injured employee back to work sooner.

Workers' Compensation

Workers' compensation is a government-mandated insurance program. Each state’s program is different, but workers’ compensation generally protects employers from possible negligence lawsuits due to employee injury in the workplace. In return, the employee receives replacement wages and medical treatment. Workers' compensation has a long history dating back to 1855 when Georgia and Alabama passed the Employer Liability Acts. The laws gave injured employees the right to sue their employer and attempt to prove employer negligence. In 1902, Maryland adopted the first statewide workers' compensation law and the first law covering federal employees passed in 1906. By 1949, all states had adopted some type of workers' compensation program.

State Requirements

The requirements and regulations for workers’ compensation coverage vary by state, each with a governing board that manages the combinations of public and private systems. Federal employees are subject to different requirements and framework for receiving assistance. Workers' compensation provides weekly payments to replace wages or supplement for economic loss, reimbursement or payment of medical expenses and dependent benefits in the case of an employee's death. However, it does not cover pain and suffering or punitive damages due to employer negligence.

Occupational Medicine

Occupational medicine focuses on the handling of illnesses, injuries, or disabilities related to a worksite and teaching ways to prevent such occurrences. The first textbook of occupational medicine, Diseases of Workers, was published in 1700 by Italian physician, Bernardo Ramazzini who suggested doctors ask about a patient’s occupation as part of their treatment plan. As one of the founding works on occupational medicine, it was comprised of workers in 52 occupations and played a significant role in future development of treatment options. The book provides a framework for the health hazards of chemicals, including dust and metals, repetitive or violent motions, ergonomics, and other disease-causative agents.

Occupational Health and Safety Act

There are hazards associated with every occupation, and while some may not be as life-threatening as others, injuries suffered while performing work functions can impact an employee’s health and future. The Occupational Safety and Health Act created the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Education and Research Centers, which backs the occupational medicine training offered by major medical schools. Occupational physicians are board-certified and must have an expansive knowledge of clinical medicine. Specializations include toxicology, human factors and ergonomics, epidemiology, safety studies, and engineering.

It is safe to say that the line of difference between workers’ compensation and occupational medicine is a thin one. While both relate to workplace injuries, one provides payment of medical costs for injured employees while protecting employers from possible litigation. The other is specialized treatment designed to get employees healthy and because of that, there is a distinct difference between workers’ compensation and occupational medicine.

To learn more about what makes a great occupational medicine provider, download our free guide: The 10 Essential Elements of an Occupational Medicine Program.