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Accident at work – and what next: Can a heart attack be an accident at work?

A variety of circumstances may cause a workplace accident. It is important to properly determine the cause of an accident, because only an event that had an external cause may be deemed a work accident.

An external cause of an accident has a very broad definition. It may be the operation of a workplace machine or tool, or the behaviour of another person, or of the injured person himself. A workplace accident may even be caused by the employee tripping, or his unfortunate reflex action that led to a fall and the injury.

Illness as a cause of an accident

Problems arise, if the factor that brought about the accident at work was an illness. If an employee with a cardiac complaint suffers a heart attack at work, then the conclusion is that it was due to his coronary artery disease. The same applies if a worker with epilepsy suffers an injury while having a seizure. The accident is then considered to be due to the injured person’s state of health, and therefore had an internal cause and cannot be regarded as an accident at work.

However, it may be premature to arrive at such a conclusion. The accident investigation team should carefully investigate the circumstances of the incident and determine its causes. This is because it may turn out that, apart from an obvious internal cause, some other external factor had also affected the injured party’s organism and caused a disease response. During the investigation, the team may establish that the accident was the result of two simultaneous causes, internal and external, and was thereby an accident at work.

Concurrent causes of an accident at work

Whether an external factor is recognised as having jointly caused an accident depends on whether it had causal nature. It is important for the factor to have had a direct and significant impact on the accident. The fact that an employee, who had a heart attack, was carrying out a job that required effort, is insufficient for establishing that it was an accident at work. If, on the other hand, that effort was excessive (above average) and worsened the existing condition, then the accident could have had two causes: internal and external.

A simultaneous external cause of an accident may also be the employee’s fatigue due to excessive working hours, without rest or overtime. Therefore, when determining the circumstances and causes of an accident, it is worth examining what hours the injured person was working.

Stress or strong emotions may also be a causal factor in an accident, if brought on by extraordinary circumstances. But this does not include stress caused by the employee transferring to another job, or receiving a notice of termination, as these are not exceptional situations. When such a cause does arises in an accident, it is important to know the position that the employee held. It is clear that a person in a managerial position has to handle more stress than a person in a regular position. A level of stress that a person employed in a given job should bear without significant harm to health, will not be regarded as a cause of an accident at work.

Outdated medical certificate: disagreements

There is no doubt that it is seriously negligent for an employer to allow an employee to work without having undertaken a valid medical examination. This may also be regarded as a cause of an accident at work that the employee might suffer. However, there is much dispute as to whether an employee’s performance of work on the basis of a medical certificate that is no longer accurate may be deemed as a cause of an accident. This involves a situation in which an employee formally holds a valid medical certificate, but the person’s health has changed significantly since the examination. Such worker should be examined again in order to check whether the person is still capable of carrying out the work. If, for example, a truck driver has already had two heart attacks while holding a current medical certificate, the employer should make sure that the driver can still do such stressful work.

This is problematic because, in such a situation, the law does not explicitly provide a basis for referring an employee to a medical examination, which sometimes results in the employee refusing to take it. Nevertheless, the employer should refer an employee whose health has clearly deteriorated for a new medical examination, and enforce it. A worker who is suspected of not having a current medical certificate should not be allowed to work. Failure to do so may not only lead to a risk to the health and life of the employee, but also in a finding that the employer has breached its health and safety obligations.

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In the next post in the “Accident at work – and what next?” cycle, we will present the arguments over how the relationship between a given accident and work should be determined, which constitutes another precondition for considering an incident as an accident at work.

Anna Kluj