Injury Claims for Chemical Exposure on the Job

A workers' comp claim is the most common option for on-the-job injuries caused by chemicals or toxins, but a civil lawsuit may be an option.

Updated by , J.D. · University of San Francisco School of Law

If you are injured by chemical exposure while on the job, you typically have one of two potential legal remedies—a workers' compensation claim or a personal injury lawsuit—usually depending on where the chemical came from and who controlled the area where the exposure occurred.

Injuries from Chemical Exposure on the Job

Almost any employment situation or job site can expose employees to dangerous chemicals. While many 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, proper safety equipment may include goggles, gloves, helmet, a hazmat suit, eye wash station, 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.

Workers' Compensation Coverage

If you suffer a chemical exposure injury on the job, you can probably file a workers' compensation claim. Most employees injured on the job are 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 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, it's usually a good idea to:

Learn more about filing a workers' compensation claim for toxic exposure.

When To File a Personal Injury Claim

An employee who was injured on the job cannot file a personal injury lawsuit against the employer. After a workplace accident, an injured employee's sole legal remedy is usually a workers' compensation claim.

But if the employee was injured through the negligence or legal fault of someone other than the employer, the employee may have the right to file a personal injury case against that other person or company. That kind of lawsuit is usually 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 compensation (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. (Get tips on proving negligence in a personal injury case.)

Remember that 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. But let's say 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 might have a third party claim against the manufacturer for failing to provide the user with crucial warnings about necessary protective equipment.

Get more details on workers' compensation claims versus personal injury lawsuits.

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