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Toxic Exposure in and Out of the Workplace--What You Need to Know

Workers are exposed to hazardous toxins and chemicals on a daily basis, which can lead to any number of injuries or illnesses, some fatal. These toxic substances come in many forms, such as fumes, liquids, gas, solids and powders.

Common workplace chemicals include asbestos, mercury, lead, ammonia, zinc, iodine, manganese and benzene. However, there are many more, all of which enter the body by the following four major routes:

  • Inhalation (breathing)
  • Skin (or eye) contact
  • Swallowing (ingestion or eating)
  • Injection (such as hospital settings)

Injuries and illnesses resulting from chemical exposure vary depending on the type and length of exposure, and can include the following:

  • Neurological damage
  • Burns
  • Rashes and other skin irritations
  • Cancer and leukemia
  • Asthma
  • Vision damage
  • Neurological disorders such as Parkinson's Disease
  • Headaches, nausea and dizziness

"These sorts of injuries can be caused by one-time significant exposure or by prolonged exposure over time," says Amy Leung, a partner in the law firm of Gordon, Edelstein, Krepack, Grant, Felton & Goldstein, LLP (GEK). "It is imperative that workers injured this way obtain the appropriate medical care. Even if your employer took all reasonable precautions to keep employees safe from toxic exposure doesn't mean you can't file a Workers' Compensation claim. Workers' Compensation is a no-fault system; recovery is not based on fault."

Toxic exposure in the workplace

Toxins' Impact on a Variety of Workers

Those who are most likely to be exposed to toxins on the job include the following:

  • Utility workers
  • First responders
  • Laboratory workers
  • Gas station workers
  • Steel or rubber factory workers
  • Construction workers
  • Welders
  • Workers exposed to diesel fumes
  • Aerospace industry workers
  • Waste disposal workers
  • Manual laborers
  • Custodial worker

Information Is Key

Employers have a responsibility to provide a healthy and safe workplace for their employees. If hazardous toxins or chemicals are present, the law requires employers to provide their workers with such information.

That notification can be in the form of Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS). MSDS provide information regarding spill and leak procedures, personal protective equipment, disposal, storage, first aid, health effects and toxicity.

In addition, employers can inform workers of possible hazards via Chemical Manufacturer's Labels and Supplemental Hazard Labels.

The former provides the following information: the commercial name of the chemical, the name and address of the manufacturer, and any physical or health hazards presented by the chemical.

Some manufacturer's labels include additional information such as required Personal Protective Equipment, special handling and storage requirements, first-aid and spill clean-up tactics.

Supplemental Labels rank hazards by flammability, reactivity and special warnings.

Many companies have their own labeling system to identify chemical hazards. Workers should know and understand how to read the labeling systems used at their facility.

Toxic Air Pollution and Its Impact on Certain Communities

When it comes to non-work-related toxic exposure, Latinos and African Americans in California breathe 40 percent more fine particulate matter from cars, trucks and buses than their White peers, according to a report by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

This type of air particle pollution is so tiny—20 times smaller than the width of a human hair—it can penetrate deeply into the lungs and bloodstream. It is linked to heart and lung ailments, asthma attacks and even death.

"California has made enormous strides over the past several decades to reduce overall pollution from vehicles, but this data shows people of color still breath higher amounts of pollution," said David Reichmuth, senior engineer at Union of Concerned Scientists.

Knowledge Is Key

Whether in or out of the workplace, it is clear that keeping well-informed about environmental toxins is the best way to protect one's health. "If you believe you have been exposed to toxic material, seeking medical care immediately is paramount," says Leung. "If it is a workplace issue, it is wise to contact a Workers' Compensation attorney to ensure you receive the full range of benefits to which you are entitled. At GEK, we are here to help."


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