Dealing with Chemical Exposure in the Workplace

pouring chemicals into beaker

Regardless of your profession, you will probably be exposed to strong chemicals at some point in your career. From industrial factories to cleaning up around the office, we use chemicals to help us get our jobs done. While these substances may have a purpose, they can also be dangerous if the employee is not adequately educated or protected.

Chemical exposure at work can cause immediate or long-term damage to your health. While most American companies have gotten better at limiting employee exposure to harsh chemicals by improving their safety measures, occupational illnesses still occur. In 2012, there were approximately 14,024 occupational chemical injuries reported.

Worker Rights

As a U.S. employee, you deserve a safe workplace. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) outlines a list of rights that all workers have on the job:

  • Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
  • Receive information and training (in a language and vocabulary the worker understands) about workplace hazards, methods to prevent them, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace.
  • Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
  • File a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA’s rules. OSHA will keep all identities confidential.
  • Exercise their rights under the law without retaliation, including reporting an injury or raising health and safety concerns with their employer or OSHA. If a worker has been retaliated against for using their rights, they must file a complaint with OSHA as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days.

Employers are responsible for the safety of their employees. Unfortunately, not every employer follows these guidelines, and accidents still happen. Keep reading to learn about how chemical accidents happen, measures employers should take to prevent them and what you need to do if you are exposed to hazardous substances.

How Chemicals Enter the Body

Chemicals can cause minor or significant damage to the body, depending on how corrosive or toxic the substance is and how long you have been exposed to it. There are four primary ways dangerous chemicals can enter the bloodstream on the job:

  • Skin Contact: While chemicals cause irritation or burns on the surface of the skin, some can cross through the skin barrier and go into the bloodstream.
  • Inhalation: For all chemicals in a gas form, inhalation can cause direct damage to the respiratory system or take the hazardous materials into the bloodstream.
  • Ingestion: Some chemicals that are accidentally swallowed can be passed through the digestive system unless they are directly corrosive. Ingested soluble compounds are digested into the bloodstream and can cause further damage.
  • Injection: If the skin is punctured, chemicals can be cycled directly into the bloodstream from the point of penetration.

Common Chemical Hazards

While hundreds of chemicals can negatively affect the body, here are descriptions of common hazardous substances you might find in the workplace:

  • Asbestos was used for insulation and repair due to its heat and corrosion resistance. While undetectable to the naked eye, repeated exposure to asbestos particles could cause scarring to the lungs, and different forms of cancer. It is mostly known for producing a type of cancer called mesothelioma that was found in construction and shipyard workers.

Asbestos has affected many American workers. Between 1940-1979, 27 million people were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Employees who are exposed to asbestos and develop mesothelioma are entitled to enhanced benefits under the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Law, in addition to having a potential third party claim against the manufacturer of the product containing asbestos.

  • Benzene is derived from coal and petroleum and found in other fossil fuels. It produces plastics, detergents and other chemicals. There are connections between high levels of benzene exposure and the development of leukemia.
  • Lead is one of the oldest-used metals and one of the first to cause occupational illness. It was widely used as a stabilizer in a variety of products but is now known for the vast number of ailments it causes through inhalation or ingestion.
  • Mercury is used for gauges and electronics. High exposure can cause nervous system or kidney damage.
  • Silica is a mineral present whenever there is a substantial destruction of stone or earth, such as drilling or fracking. These silica particles can be inhaled by workers and cause respiratory diseases.

For a full guide to chemical hazards, you might encounter in the workplace, visit the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards.

The Hierarchy of Controls

Whenever you are in a profession where you are regularly exposed to these potentially harmful chemicals, your employer should follow a strategy for removing hazards called the Hierarchy of Controls. The NIOSH developed this system to remove dangers from most effective to least effective.

  • Elimination is the goal of removing the hazard entirely.
  • Substitution is replacing a dangerous chemical with a safer alternative.
  • Engineering control is the creation of a system that keeps employees within a safe distance from the hazardous material if it has to be used.
  • Administrative control is training employees on how to handle a hazardous substance properly.
  • Personal protection equipment (PPE) are any devices or clothing items used to protect the worker who is handling the dangerous substances.

Regardless of the amount of hazard the employer can remove, employees always need to be aware of the risk involved with any substances used on the job. Employers are responsible for the education of their employees.

What Should I Do If I’ve Been Exposed to a Chemical in the Workplace? How Do I Prove Chemical Exposure?

If a chemical exposure at work has injured you, you need to file an injury report just like you would for any other injury. The most significant difference between chemical substance illnesses and other work-related injuries is how long it can take for chemical exposure illnesses to become apparent. Regardless of when you discover the ailment, you need to report it to your supervisor and fill out a work injury/illness report.

After you report the chemical exposure, you need to note how the exposure occurred and gather evidence. If coworkers were present, ask for their witness accounts of the incident.

Get medical attention as soon as you see any symptoms of a chemical exposure illness. An examination will help you to know how severe the exposure is and how you can begin the recovery process. A doctor’s notes are also crucial to proving hazardous chemical exposure.

The last thing you need to do is consult an attorney who specializes in workers’ compensation. They can help you to make sure you receive fair compensation for the hazardous conditions you had to face at your place of work.

If you have developed an illness from chemical exposure, contact a legal expert at Alberhasky Law Firm today to get the compensation you deserve.


About the Author

When it comes to workers’ compensation cases, Randy Alberhasky has over 25 years of experience. During his legal career he has personally tried over 200 workers’ compensation hearings and jury trials in courts throughout the State of Missouri. Many people who have suffered from a workplace injury and illness are unaware of the legal action they can take to receive the financial compensation that they’re entitled to.  The Alberhasky Law Firm, P.C. is proud to help our clients receive the compensation they deserve.

About Randy

During his legal career he has personally tried over 200 workers’ compensation hearings and jury trials, has been counsel in over 50 cases before the Missouri Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, 35 cases in front of the Missouri Court of Appeals and 3 cases before the Missouri Supreme Court. Read More…

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