Exposure to Toxins at Work: Options Under Workers' Compensation

Workers made ill by exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace are nearly always covered under their state’s workers' compensation system. Here's an overview of workers' rights and the benefits available.

Laws vary from state to state, but the vast majority of states treat a harmful exposure to toxic chemicals in the workplace as a workers’ compensation claim. These sorts of injuries can be caused by a one-time significant exposure or where the bodily damage occurred over a period of time in which you were exposed to one or more toxins, which in some states is called an occupational disease.

If you believe you were, or currently are, exposed to toxic substances at work, you should talk to your doctor. Your doctor can determine if you have any physical conditions resulting from potential chemical or toxin exposure. Once you know that you have been hurt by toxic exposure, report this to your employer immediately. You should then begin the process of filing a workers' compensation claim.

What Types of Toxic Exposures Are There?

Toxic chemicals in the workplace can be one of a multitude of substances known to cause bodily harm or death to those exposed to the toxins. Common workplace toxic exposures include: asbestos, benzene, arsenic, ammonia, chloroform, zinc, lead, mercury, iodine, formaldehyde, hydrogen peroxide, uranium, and many more.

(If you have been exposed to asbestos, and are worried about the possibility of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related problems, there may be unique legal issues outside the scope of workers compensation. Please see Workers Exposed to Asbestos: Laws and Legal Remedies.)

Precautions Do Not Eliminate Your Workers’ Compensation Claim

The fact that your employer took all reasonable precautions does not eliminate your right to a worker’s compensation claim if you were exposed to toxic chemicals at work. Workers' comp recovery is not based on fault. All that is required for a workers’ compensation claim is that you are exposed to the dangerous substance in the course of your employment, and that the exposure caused an illness or other bodily harm. This is in contrast to the equivalent personal injury claim, which also requires that you prove your employer negligent.

What Should You Do?

If you believe you might have a workers’ compensation claim due to a toxic chemical exposure at work, first talk to your doctor. Your doctor will evaluate your condition and may refer you to a specialist trained in evaluating workplace toxic exposures.

If your doctor determines you have an illness or condition due to a chemical exposure at work, contact your employer immediately. Your employer will provide you with the forms necessary to file a workers’ compensation claim. In many states, your doctor can also fill out certain forms to report a workplace injury, thus starting your workers’ compensation claim.

You, your doctor, and your employer should determine a plan for eliminating, or possibly just limiting, your workplace exposure to the toxic chemicals to a greater extent.

You should also consider talking to a workers compensation attorney. An attorney can start gathering evidence to establish the fact that your illness was caused by a toxic chemical exposure in the workplace. This may include sampling and testing at your work, involvement of toxic chemical experts, and other steps. The sooner an attorney is able to begin this process, the better your case.

Benefits Available

As part of your workers’ compensation claim, you will be eligible to receive certain benefits. Benefits vary from state to state, and depend greatly on the circumstances of each case. These are a few of the types of benefits you may be eligible to receive all or some of the following.

  • Temporary disability benefits to compensate for the loss of income during the period you are receiving treatment and unable to work.
  • Permanent partial disability or permanent total disability benefits to compensate for permanent bodily impairment due to the toxic exposure.
  • Coverage of your medical treatment expenses, including diagnostic studies, medication, and equipment.

An attorney can help you assess what benefits you may be eligible for, and can advocate on your behalf in an effort to give you the maximum benefits possible. For more on how benefits are calculated, see this article.

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