Toxic Injury at Work

Chemical exposure in the workplace is a major source of litigation.  All work environments, from a construction site to an office building, pose some level of risk for toxic injury.  More than 32 million workers (more than 20% of the entire U.S. workforce) are exposed to hazardous chemical products in the workplace.  These 650,000 different chemicals are present in more than 3 million American workplaces, according to the Occupational Health & Safety Administration.  This Help Center article highlights the risks of toxic injury in a variety of workplaces, explains the government’s role in regulating chemical hazards, and describes how worker’s compensation laws factor into an employee’s options after a toxic injury.

Toxic Chemicals in Different Types of Work Environments

Manufacturing – Factories, plants, and mills use equipment and materials to make new products.  Examples of manufactured products include textiles, refined oil, office supplies, electronics, tobacco, and plastics.  Chemicals present in these workplaces can cause short-term and long-term negative health effects on workers.  Members of the community might also be exposed to chemicals as a result of the manufacturing if the factory releases chemicals into the air, land, or water.  Chemicals used in manufacturing include asbestos, benzene, formaldehyde, lead, ozone, pesticides, and toluene.  Welders, for example, are exposed to the chemical manganese through welding smoke.  Exposure can lead to manganism.

Construction – The construction industry employs more than 9 million workers, including carpenters, plumbers, roofers, painters, and welders.  Construction workers risk exposure to toxic materials that are materials needed for construction, or chemicals that are released during construction.  Common construction chemicals include arsenic preservatives, lead coatings, and solvents.  Demolition workers, for example, might be exposed to old insulation materials such as asbestos, PCBs, and formaldehyde.  Toxic exposure can also occur as a result of diesel fuel missions from construction equipment.  Construction workers at risk for developing silicosis, a lung disease that is often fatal.  Silicosis is the result of accumulated silica dust from concrete, masonry, sandstone, rock, paint, plaster, and shingles.

Auto Shops – Workers in auto shops (mechanics, painters, repair workers, etc.) are regularly exposed to toxic chemicals on the job.  Auto refinishers and painters use materials such as paint additives, solvents, volatile organic compounds, and isocynates.  These chemicals are the leading cause of occupational asthma.  Auto workers who repair vehicles are also exposed to chemicals, such as antifreeze, diesel fuel, gasoline, lead products, oil spills, solvents, and brakes or clutches that contain asbestos.  Glass installers might use solvents and other products that cause allergic skin reactions.  All employees in auto shops are exposed to toxic emissions from vehicles and might also be exposed to oil or gas spills and leaks from storage tanks.

Shipyards –  Workers who build, repair, maintain, and break down ships work in shipyards.  Shipyards are very dangerous places to work, and there are many ways in which workers are exposed to hazardous chemicals.  During shipbuilding and repair, workers paint, prepare the surface of the ship, clean the tank, and perform other aspects of marine construction.  Maintenance of a ship requires handling large amounts of engine fluid such as oil and antifreeze.  Shipyard activities can occur on the water or on land.  Shipyards located on the water pollute the water with toxic chemicals including chromium, copper, nickel, and lead.  Cleaning and dismantling ships involves exposure to harsh chemicals, such as heavy metals, solvents, and asbestos.

Beauty Salons – Occupational asthma and other health problems are of major concern to employees of hair and nail salons.  Chemicals in nail care products include benzene, a carcinogen, and formaldehyde, which is suspected to cause cancer.  Other harmful chemicals that nail care workers might be exposed to include acetone, acetonitrile, dibutyl phthalate, ethyl acetate, fiberglass, titanium dioxide, toluene, and volatile organic compounds.  Many of these chemicals evaporate into the air, making proper ventilation necessary to prevent harm to both salon workers and customers.  Hair dye can contain chemicals that irritate the skin and even penetrate the skin.  If salon workers use latex gloves for protection, they are exposed to latex dust.

Dental Offices – Good dental health is important for patients, but brings with it major risk of toxic exposure for dental office employees, including dentists, office personnel, and dental assistants.  Beryllium, a chemical known to cause cancer in humans, is used to make crowns, bridges, and partial dentures.  Dental workers also risk reproductive health problems because of exposure to heavy metals, organic solvents, sterilizing substances, and anesthetic gases.  Respiratory disease can develop in dental workers as result of exposure to dental drills made of the metal cobalt.  Plastics, adhesives, glues, and coatings can also cause chemical exposure.  Finally, dental workers who use latex gloves are at risk for latex allergies for occupational asthma because of exposure to latex dust.

Hospitals – Although hospitals exist to improve the health of patients, employees in hospitals nonetheless risk toxic injury at work.  In addition to general concerns of indoor air quality, cleaning products, and pesticides, hospitals pose unique risks of toxic injury.  For example, hospital equipment may use harmful chemicals: mercury in thermometers; ethylene oxide and glutaraldehyede in sterilization equipment; and formaldehyde to preserve tissues in labs and morgues.  Anesthetic gases may leak during procedures, causing nausea, dizziness, sterility, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, or liver and kidney disease. Hazardous drugs, when handled by hospital workers, might cause skin rashes, infertility, miscarriage, birth defects, or cancer.  Latex gloves could cause allergies or asthma.

Offices and Stores – At first glance, these workplaces might seem to be free of toxic injury risk, but unfortunately, offices and stores pose their own risks of chemical exposure.  Pesticides and cleaning products (whether for use in the workplace or for sale) can cause health problems for workers.  Examples of health issues include skin problems and allergies.  Offices and stores may also have poor air quality.  In fact, indoor air can have higher levels of pollutants than outside air.  Pollutants can come from a variety of sources: cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and new furniture.  These air pollutants can cause allergies, asthma, and respiratory illnesses.  Indoor air can also contain illness-causing bacteria, viruses, molds, and pollens.

Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA)

The federal government, through the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) aims to ensure chemical safety in the workplace through a variety of workplace regulations.  For example, chemical manufacturers and importers must evaluate the hazards of the chemicals they use and prepare material safety data sheets (MSDSs) for employees and downstream customers.  Employers with hazardous chemicals in the workplace must also train workers in proper methods of handling chemicals.  OSHA calls these requirements its Hazard Communication Standard (HCS).  The purpose of these rules is to prevent work-related illnesses and injuries caused by chemicals.  In fact, OSHA states that workers have a right to know what chemicals they are exposed to.  The HCS has more rules for employers that produce or import chemicals, although other employers must still keep employees aware of possible chemical exposure and develop a workplace program for notifying workers.  The HCS cover chemicals in all physical forms: liquids, gases, vapors, fumes, and mists, regardless of whether they are in a container.  States have their own versions of the HCS, which will probably be very similar to OSHA’s version.

Worker’s Compensation

If an employee receives a toxic injury on the job, worker’s compensation may be the primary method of compensation.  Worker’s compensation laws vary by state, though federal worker’s compensation statutes may also apply.  The purpose of worker’s compensation laws is to provide injured workers with fixed monetary awards and avoid litigation.  An attorney will be able to provide specific advice regarding worker’s compensation statutes in your state and whether alternative methods of compensation for workplace injuries exist.

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Read the next article:  Toxic Injury at Home and in the Community 

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