Laws on Toxic Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

An overview of some federal and state laws that come into play when a worker is exposed to (and harmed by) toxic chemicals.

Every day, we are exposed to toxic chemicals, perhaps more than we realize. From household cleaning products to the chemicals in the plastic in our storage containers, chemicals are always present. And for employees in certain industries and locales, the presence of toxic chemicals and substances extends to the workplace environment.

Federal Regulations

When people think of toxic chemical exposure at work, often they think of substances such as carbon monoxide or asbestos. While it is now well-known that asbestos, for example, causes significant, life-threatening illness, it was not always widely known that asbestos was harmful. In the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s it was regularly used in industrial settings such as paper mills and shipyards. In the 1970s, as its dangers became more well-known, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) adopted regulations for asbestos and for toxic chemicals, indicating how much of them, if any, could safely be used in workplaces.

OSHA regulations still control the acceptable amounts of chemicals in one's workplace. They require employers to train employees who must work with toxic chemicals, to use government-specified labels and warnings, and to have safety data sheets available for employees to review.

Employees should also be advised that sometimes, otherwise safe materials or substances may become dangerous if they are altered -- for example, if they are cut or burned and release dust, normally benign substances may become dangerous.

State Workers Compensation Laws

Worker's compensation insurance is carried by employers to compensate injured employees. Most claims of on-the-job injury are handled through this state-based system rather than through traditional litigation. Instead of filing a lawsuit, an injured worker files a workers' compensation claim. However, it is important to consult with an experienced attorney because, depending on the substance and the type of workplace, sometimes administrative claims may also have to be made through OSHA. Your attorney will be able to advise you on how to get the process started.

Other Sources of Governing Law

Also, your attorney can advise you about whether there are other issues at play. For example, although workers who were exposed to unsafe levels of asbestos bring their claims through the worker's compensation system and/or statutes that apply to the maritime industry (through the Jones Act or LHWCA), they may also bring claims against the manufacturers of asbestos-containing products, or makers of equipment that utilized asbestos. Toxic substances sometimes fall under strict liability statutes if they are determined to be "inherently dangerous." Your attorney can let you know whether you may be able to pursue other avenues such as this to maximize your recovery.

Complications of Proof in Chemical Injury Cases

The greatest complications in toxic chemical cases are problems of proof. Most claims are not as clear-cut as asbestos claims are, and it may be difficult to determine what chemicals are present in your workplace. If you suspect exposure to toxins at work, you should first put your employer on notice of the problem. Even if it is just a concern and the chemical exposure has not been confirmed by a doctor, you should still bring the problem to your employer's attention so it can be addressed as quickly as possible for your safety and the safety of others. You may also request a copy of the safety data sheet to determine what you may have been exposed to, which will be helpful for your doctor.

Unfortunately, some symptoms, such as nausea and dizziness or respiratory issues, are associated with many other health conditions and it can be hard to connect them to chemical exposure. If you think there may be a toxic chemical in or near your work area, you should not only alert your employer, but also consult with a doctor and keep careful notes about what symptoms you are experiencing, when they started, where in the building you work, and any other details that may help your provider connect your health issues with the chemical exposure.

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