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Workers compensation

Understanding Your Rights After a Workplace Injury

Written by
A drawing of the lead workers' compensation lawyer for Atticus.
Victoria Muñoz
Lead Attorney
July 14, 2022  ·  8 min read
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Atticus offers free, high-quality workers' compensation advice to those injured at work. Our team of Stanford and Harvard trained lawyers has a combined 15+ years of legal experience, and help thousands of Americans get the benefits they deserve each year.

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Injuries are always challenging — but sustaining an injury in the workplace can be particularly frustrating. Getting hurt in a situation where you’re supposed to be protected is made even more difficult when your employer doesn’t support you.

However, it is possible to get help even if your boss isn’t in your corner — in fact, it’s your legal right! Here’s everything you need to know about workers' compensation, including the right steps to take to get the financial protection you deserve. 

I’ve been hurt on the job. Now what?

If you’re the victim of a workplace injury, you’re certainly not alone — in fact, workplace injury statistics in the US are particularly damning thanks to our complex insurance laws. To seek adequate workers compensation, it’s important to first get some key definitions under your belt. 

So, what is a work-related injury? According to OSHA Standard 1904.5, an injury is defined as work-related for two possible reasons:

  • An event or exposure in the work environment caused or contributed to the injury
  • An event or exposure in the workplace significantly aggravated a preexisting injury or illness. 

Generally speaking, an injury or illness is presumed to be work-related when they occur because of events in the workplace.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, private industry employers reported 2.7 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses in 2020. The most common occupations that are prone to workplace injuries include nursing, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, laborers and freight, stock and material movers, and maintenance and repair workers.

Now comes the second part of the equation — what is workers’ compensation? Essentially, it’s a give-and-take system that comes into play if you have been injured in the workplace. Legally speaking, workers’ compensation is a form of employer insurance coverage that pays you benefits if you are injured or become disabled as a result of your job. As long as your employer has workers' compensation insurance and did not intentionally injure you, you cannot typically sue. We’ll talk you through what happens when your employer doesn’t cooperate with your claim.

Don’t sleep on it

When it comes to seeking legal aid for your workers’ compensation, timeliness can seriously benefit your case. Most states require you to report your injury within the same day or within a few days of the incident, but this isn’t always possible depending on your circumstances. If you can report your injury to your employer immediately, that’s the ideal scenario. Prompt reporting leads to a stronger claim for workers' comp benefits, which can give you more time to focus on medical recovery. 

Be mindful that each state has its own requirements for giving proper notice to your employer in the wake of a workplace injury — and failing to follow the correct procedure may affect your right to collect workers' comp benefits.

You’re not alone

The National Safety Council does a great job of breaking down the specific types of workplace injuries that are the most common. In the wake of the pandemic, things shifted a fair bit in regards to the top injuries and illnesses reported at work. Exposure to harmful substances or environments clinched the top spot (up from a previous sixth place), followed by overexertion/bodily reaction, with falls, slips and trips rounding out the list.

According to NCCI data, the most costly workers’ compensation claims by cause of injury result from motor-vehicle crashes. The only other causes with above-average costs were burns, falls or slips, and being caught in or compressed by equipment or objects. To expand on this, the most costly workers’ compensation claims by nature of injury are for those resulting from amputation, followed by injuries resulting in fracture, crush or dislocation, other trauma, and burns.

Knowing your rights

With workers' compensation laws varying widely from state to state, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to workplace rights and compensation. It’s always worth researching what the specific laws and regulations are that pertain to your state, but there are some legal rights that are common across most of the USA:

  • You have the right to see a doctor and seek medical treatment
  • If your physician releases you, you have the right to return to your job
  • If your injury or illness prevents you from returning to work (either permanently or temporarily), you have the right to disability compensation
  • If you disagree with any decision made by your employer, your employer's insurance company, or the workers' compensation court, you generally have the right to appeal it
  • You have the right to pursue a workers' compensation claim without fear of reprisal or harassment from your employer — penalties for employers who violate this right can be severe
  • You have the right to be represented by a lawyer throughout the process.

While understanding your rights to act as an employee, it’s just as important to know when you can legally refuse certain requests or offers. For example, if your employer encourages you to use your own health insurance to pay for medical treatment of a workplace injury, you are within your rights to say no. It’s also illegal for your employer to attempt to persuade you not to file a workers’ comp claim, whether it’s through offering incentives or otherwise.

The blame game

Workers’ compensation may not be your only route to what is rightfully owed to you — particularly in the case where your workplace injury was caused by the negligence of a third party. This other person (or entity) may be either directly or indirectly responsible for your injury. For example, they may be the manufacturer of a faulty piece of equipment or the driver of the truck that hit you. 

If you are injured while at work due to the negligence of a separate party, you may have the right to bring a claim against them — in legal terms, this is defined as a third-party claim. Generally, these claims are filed in a completely different realm to the workers' compensation universe. They tend to instead take the form of civil lawsuits filed in state or federal courts.

These civil lawsuits for workplace injuries can seek to top up the personal injury damages that can’t be recovered in a straight workers’ compensation claim. For example, your workers’ comp benefits are typically intended to cover your medical expenses and lost wages — there’s no legal claim to pain and suffering damages. However, a third-party claim may give you room to seek this extra compensation that falls into the category of non-economic damages.

How to report a workplace injury

There are several key points to factor in when you are reporting a workplace injury. We’ll guide you in the right direction here:

When should I report my workplace injury?

As previously mentioned, time is of the essence with workplace injury reports. Timelines vary as much as four days in Colorado and 90 days in Iowa from the date of the incident — so it’s always best to check the rules for your individual state. In cases of occupational illness or conditions that develop over time (like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome), you generally need to give notice as soon as you discover the condition and its relationship to your work.

How do I report a workplace injury?

Reporting a workplace injury varies in detail from state to state. Depending on your location and your employer, you may need to use a specific accident report form — in other instances, any written format (such as a letter or email) is accepted as legally binding. The most important thing to do at this stage is to cover all your bases. Check your state regulations regarding accident report forms, as well as additional written or verbal notice. Keep a copy of every piece of written correspondence for your records, with lodgement dates included. 

In the event of a medical emergency where you simply don’t have the time or resources to complete a physical accident report form, you should strive to give verbal notice in front of witnesses as soon as possible. You can follow up with more formal notice as soon as you are equipped to do so.

When you notify your employer, include:

  • Your name and contact information
  • The time and date of your injury
  • Where the incident occurred
  • How you injured yourself
  • All physical symptoms of your injury (or injuries).

For more help, try our guide to reporting a work injury.

Your payday

How much compensation can I get for being injured on the job? It’s probably the first thing that springs to mind when the initial shock of a workplace injury subsides. As with all legal cases, every single situation is different and you will not know how much monetary compensation you will receive until your case is closed. Your compensation payout can vary depending on the type and severity of your injury, how long you took to report it, what sort of legal representation you engage, and many other factors.

If you’re looking for an approximate guide to the different levels of compensation offered based on injury type, the National Council on Compensation Insurance has some handy statistics available. 

Finding the right workplace injury lawyer

When seeking out a good workplace injury lawyer, there are some non-negotiable elements to look out for. First and foremost, find a law firm that specializes in workers compensation. Workers’ comp law is complicated — and lawyers at a workers comp-specific practice will have a more in-depth understanding of the nuances surrounding your case. Also make time to check out reviews for your chosen law firm, keeping an eye out for terms like trustworthy, caring, and helpful.

Still, most law firms make the same promises, and it can be hard to guess at their credibility without having legal expertise. At Atticus, our legal team has vetted hundreds of firms nationwide — and we’ve sourced dozens of firms we trust to treat our clients well, and to win their cases. 

With a special focus on fighting for full and fair compensation for accident victims, Atticus is set up to connect you with the resources you need to succeed. Whether it’s free advice, a caring expert, or legal representation you can trust — Atticus has got you covered.

Got a workplace injury and need help fast? Get in touch with Atticus today.

Maximize your workers' comp benefits.

Frequently asked questions about workers’ comp

How does workers’ comp work?

The workers’ comp process starts when you report your work injury or illness to your employer. Then you have to file a claim within a certain amount of time so you can qualify for weekly payments and reimbursement of your medical bills while you recover.

Can I get workers’ comp if the injury was my fault?

Yes. You can qualify for workers’ comp no matter whose fault the injury or illness was, as long as it happened while you were doing your job. Our guide to qualifying accidents and injuries will help you see if you could get coverage.

Do all workers qualify for workers’ comp?

You're probably eligible for workers’ comp if your employer withholds taxes from your paychecks. Independent contractors don’t usually qualify, but states may offer coverage to certain contractors, volunteers, or seasonal workers. Check with your state workers’ comp board to see exactly who qualifies in your area.

How much does workers’ comp pay?

Workers’ compensation is generally worth up to two-thirds of your pre-injury wages, but exact rates vary by state. Read more about how much workers’ comp pays in each state.

Do I need a workers’ comp lawyer?

Not everyone needs to work with a lawyer, but a workers’ comp lawyer can especially help if your claim is denied, if you get a settlement offer, or even if your claim just lasts for more than a few months. Here are some situations when a lawyer can help you.

How long do workers’ comp benefits last?

How long your benefits last varies by state, but you usually have until you reach maximum medical improvement (MMI). There are also long-term options if you can’t return to work after injury.

Is workers’ comp taxable?

No, workers’ comp benefits aren’t taxable. That's true whether you get weekly payments, a lump-sum settlement, or a settlement with a structured payment plan.

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A drawing of the lead workers' compensation lawyer for Atticus.

Victoria Muñoz

Lead Attorney

Victoria Muñoz is an attorney on Atticus’s Workers' Compensation team. She’s a licensed attorney, a graduate of Stanford Law School, and has counseled hundreds of people seeking workers' compensation. In her free time, she enjoys hiking and spending time with her pup.
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