Environmental Workplace Hazards

There is no question that certain chemicals and environmental contaminants can cause sickness and disease in humans, sometimes long after the date of exposure. What are your rights if you are exposed to hazardous materials or chemicals while at work?


Workplace Exposure to Harmful Substances

Sometimes people suffer harm or illness as a result of exposure to harmful chemicals or toxins, whether at home, at work, or while in their community.

Exposure can occur from a wide variety of sources. For example,

  • A pesticide sprayed in a park may ultimately prove unsafe, but only after many people who use the park have been exposed to the contaminant.
  • A factory may experience an accidental chemical spill, or may intentionally engage in unlawful disposal of contaminants, causing neighboring land or groundwater to become contaminated with harmful substances.
  • Construction materials may contain harmful ingredients that are released into the air during construction activity, causing workers to become exposed.

Where harmful exposure results from culpable negligence or intentional misconduct, people harmed by the exposure may be able to pursue a product liability claim against the persons or businesses responsible for their exposure. Lawsuits relating to exposure to harmful substances are sometimes referred to as "toxic torts".

Workers' Compensation or Product Liability

Where a worker is exposed to a harmful substance at work, the worker will ordinarily have recourse to the workers' compensation system, and will be able to make a claim for medical and rehabilitative care, as well as lost wages. However, where a third party contributed to the worker's illness, an injured person may also be able to pursue a product liability claim against that third party, a claim alleging that the third party is responsible for the worker's exposure to a dangerous or defective product.

Injured workers cannot recover for pain and suffering through the workers' compensation system, but that type of recovery might be possible against the companies or other third parties responsible for the worker's exposure to harmful substances.

For example,

  • Safety Equipment: Where safety equipment that is supposed to protect workers from exposure to harmful substances fails to provide adequate protection, the manufacturer of the equipment may be subject to product liability claims.
  • Machinery: Where machinery is not properly designed to protect workers from exposure to hazardous materials, or serves to increase their exposure through poor design, it may be possible to pursue a product liability claim against the manufacturer of the machinery.
  • Suppliers: The suppliers of hazardous materials may themselves be liable in a product liability action where, for example, they covered up the hazards of the material they supplied, failed to provide suitable instruction on its proper use or to provide adequate warnings about improper use, or failed to take suitable steps that might have improved the safety of the product itself (such as by removing or replacing a harmful additive).

Examples

  • Asbestos Exposure: Exposure to asbestos dust, most commonly in workplace settings, can cause lung disease including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Workers suffering from asbestos-related illness may be eligible to claim both workers' compensation benefits and product liability remedies.
  • Manganese Welding Rods: Exposure to manganese during the welding process can result in a condition known as manganism, a disorder similar in its symptoms to Parkinson's Disease. It is alleged that the manufacturers of welding rods have long known of the dangers of exposure to manganese, and are liable in product liability because they covered up those dangers.
  • Silica Dust: Exposure to silica dust, typically in construction, foundry, mining and shipyard settings, can result in silicosis, an incurable and progressive disease of the lungs. Workers who become ill from exposure to silica dust may be eligible to claim both workers' compensation benefits and product liability remedies.
  • Lead Paint Exposure: Although lead-based paint has been illegal in the United States since the late 1970's, there are many buildings that still contain lead-based paint. When the paint is rubbed off of painted surfaces, for example as a result of opening or closing a painted window, or where paint flakes are coming off of a painted surface, the paint dust can be ingested by children causing lead poisoning. Landlords and paint manufacturers have at times been held liable as a consequence of children being poisoned by lead paint.
Copyright © 2005 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on May 8, 2018.