Injury Claims for Exposure to Chemicals on the Job

The most common remedy for a worker injured by exposure to a chemical or toxin is a workers compensation claim, but in some cases a civil lawsuit may be an option.

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If you are injured due to exposure to harmful chemicals while on the job, you have two potential legal remedies -- a workers’ compensation claim and a personal injury claim or lawsuit, depending on where the chemical came from and who controlled the job site where the exposure occurred. This article will explain some of the more common situations of on the job chemical exposure and then discuss your legal options.

Injury Due to Chemical Exposure

Almost any employment situation and job site can expose employees to dangerous chemicals. While most cases of toxic chemical exposure occur in factories or locations where dangerous chemicals are used, manufactured, or mined, even office workers can suffer from chemical exposure from substances such as cleaning chemicals or paint if their work areas are not ventilated properly.

Employees who customarily work with dangerous chemicals can suffer exposure if their personal protective gear and other safety equipment is inadequate. Depending on the chemical being used, the proper safety equipment may include goggles, gloves, helmet, full body suit, and exhaust fans or other means of ventilation. It is always the employer’s duty to ensure that its employees have the proper protective gear for the work environment.

Some of the more common toxic chemicals and substances that that can cause injury to employees on the job are asbestos, lead, benzene, pesticides, cadmium, beryllium, mercury, silica, paint, solvents, and acids.

An employee can suffer injury from toxic chemicals from skin contact, breathing the fumes, or accidentally swallowing even a very small amount of a chemical.

The most common types of injuries that can occur from exposure to toxic chemicals are burns, rashes, and throat or lung injuries, but nerve and neurological injuries (i.e., brain damage) from chemical exposure are not uncommon. Neurological damage can occur from any kind of exposure -- inhalation, skin contact, or swallowing. Some types of chemicals can be very dangerous. In fact, certain types of industrial paint give off such toxic fumes that they can cause brain damage if the paint is applied without a powerful ventilation system.

Workers’ Compensation Coverage

If you suffer a chemical exposure injury on the job, you are entitled to file a workers’ compensation claim. Any employee injured on the job is entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, with some very limited exceptions. Workers’ compensation has nothing to do with fault. You do not need to prove that your employer or your co-workers did anything wrong in order to receive workers’ compensation benefits. All that you have to do is prove that you were exposed to hazardous chemicals on the job and that, as a result of that exposure, you were injured.

In order to ensure that your workers’ compensation claim is accepted, you need to do the following:

  • report your exposure to a supervisor as soon as possible
  • make sure to explain exactly how your exposure occurred
  • get the names of anyone who may have witnessed your exposure
  • get medical treatment if you need it
  • make sure to explain to your health care providers that you were exposed to a toxic chemical.

When To File Personal Injury Claim

An employee who was injured on the job cannot file a personal injury lawsuit against his/her employer. An injured employee’s sole legal remedy against his/her employer is a workers’ compensation claim.

But if the employee was injured by the fault of someone other than his/her employer, the employee has the right to file a personal injury case against that other person or company. That lawsuit is called a “third party” case because the negligent party is the “third” party involved in the claim, after the employee and the employer.

Unlike a workers’ compensation case, a personal injury claim is based on fault. In order to recover damages against someone in a “third party” claim, you must be able to prove that the “third party” defendant was negligent, meaning that he/she did something wrong.

Not all workplace chemical exposure claims will give rise to a third party case. Only if a third party is actually involved can the injured employee file a third party case.

If, for example, the employer controlled the workplace, provided the chemicals, but failed to provide any protective equipment, it would be unlikely that the employee would have a third party claim. There is simply no third party to sue in such a situation. But let’s expand this example. Let’s say that the chemical manufacturer failed to disclose that people working with that chemical must use specific types of protective equipment. In that case, the injured employee would have a third party claim against the manufacturer for failing to provide the user with necessary information about what type of protective equipment to use when using that chemical.

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