In accordance with a group of cases that have allowed workers to recover medical benefits after being exposed to blood or other bodily fluids—even when no actual proof of harm has been established—a Kentucky court recently agreed to award $700 in medical benefits to a health care worker who was splashed in the face and eyes with a patient’s blood while flushing an I.V. line (Kentucky Employers Safety Association versus Lexington Diagnostic Center, No. 2008-SC-000671-WC. [May 21, 2009])
The case arose out of a medical fee dispute between the employee and his workers’ compensation insurance carrier. Immediately following the incident, the worker notified his employer of the accident and received medical attention; at this point, the post-exposure protocol required by OSHA was performed. The process called for five office visits, including laboratory tests for blood-borne pathogens. The total cost of medical services amounted to $700. The employee’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier agreed to pay for the first two visits and a portion of the third, but then refused further compensation. According to the insurance company, while an exposure to bodily fluids “may have potentially harmful effects,” it does not officially constitute an injury unless and until objective medical findings prove that the exposure has caused a harmful change in the human organism. The insurer wrote that the insurance policy had paid for one initial test and a follow-up primarily “as a matter of custom and practice and a courtesy to its members.”
According to the official opinion of the Supreme Court of Kentucky, “At issue is whether a healthcare worker who was splattered in the face and eye with blood sustained a compensable injury and, as a consequence, whether the employer or the insurance carrier bears liability for the expense of OSHA-required prophylactic testing. Affirming a decision by the Workers’ Compensation Board, the Court of Appeals determined that the worker sustained a compensable injury and, thus, that the carrier was liable.” In other words, the court determined that being spattered in the face and/or eyes with foreign blood, or with any other potentially infectious bodily fluids, does indeed constitute a traumatic event for the purposes of KRS 342.0011(1); meanwhile, the presence of another person’s blood in the worker’s eyes counts as exposure as defined in 29 CFR 1910.1030(b), which defines a “harmful change” in an individual as—among other things—the introduction of foreign blood or potentially infectious substances into the worker’s body.