Workers are injured or get sick on the job all the time, and workers’ compensation is a benefit that was created to allow them to recover from injuries, and have their medical bills paid and lost wages replaced, all without having to sue their employer. Claims arise for a variety of reasons, with the majority of cases arising from overexertion or from slipping, tripping and falling. There are also numerous instances where workers are involved in highway accidents, machinery accidents. Some suffer repetitive motion injuries or even workplace violence. In some instances, workers file claims based on getting sick from a toxic exposure in the workplace.
When one employee gets sick because they were exposed to a chemical or substance that was dangerous to their health, there’s a good chance that others will have the same complaint, and if this happens to you, it raises an uncomfortable question: if you file a workers’ comp claim following a workplace chemical exposure, can others who want to file similar claims have access to your medical records in support of their own case? Though you may be willing to help out a colleague, that doesn’t mean that you want your entire medical file made public! This issue has come up from time to time, but New Jersey law is clear in stating that your personal information is safe and secure, even if you’ve filed for workers’ comp.
The legal question has been raised in the past, and is a bit tricky because the law states that all workers’ compensation records “shall be open to the public”. But this is in conflict with the New Jersey Workers’ Compensation Act, which specifically prohibits disclosing workers’ compensation medical records unless the claimant’s identity is completely masked. The issue was addressed recently in a case that involved employees who had been exposed to asbestos by the Union Carbide Corporation. Asbestos is a material that was widely used through most of the 20th century. Though it was useful and inexpensive, it was also found to be carcinogenic.
In that case that was recently heard, the widow of an asbestos exposure victim who’d worked for Union Carbide attempted to access the files of others who had been similarly injured to use in support of her case. Union Carbide had moved to limit disclosure of the information, and the judge in the case ruled that though employees in those cases needed to be advised of the request and that their Social Security numbers needed to be redacted, their information had to be released. That decision was appealed, and the Appellate court ruled that the privacy interests of the previously injured workers needed to be protected above all other interests. Though the medical information was allowed to be made available to the widow, it could only happen if all personal identifying information was completely redacted from the records.
Though this may seem like a technical legal point, it is a matter that should be of great concern and relief to any worker that has ever filed a workers’ compensation claim. The right to privacy regarding your medical records is an important one, and the court’s decision provides you with the confidence of knowing that your personal information will remain confidential despite the fact that your workers’ compensation claim itself is a matter of public record. Protecting your rights means standing up for your right to privacy as much as your right to compensation.