Hazardous Substance Exposure: It Doesn’t Take Much to Change a Life

Posted on January 11, 2019

Exposure to toxic chemicals, poisonous gases, and environmental pollutants commonly used in the workplace can lead to a variety of illnesses, diseases, birth defects, disabilities, and death.

Hazardous Substances in the Workplace

Chemical hazards and toxic substances pose a wide range of health hazards to humans. Hazardous substances can take many forms, including liquids, solids, gases, powders, and dust. They can be inhaled, swallowed, or splashed onto the skin or eyes. Many agricultural, industrial, and medical industries use hazardous substances that expose workers to significant health risks. Common substances include paints, solvents, glues, petroleum products, caustic substances, cleaning products, pesticides, asbestos, and heavy metals such as lead, mercury, aluminum, and cadmium.

Health risks from exposure depend on the type of hazardous substance that a worker is exposed to and the level of his/her exposure. Workers are often exposed to toxic liquids, gases, vapors, fumes, and particulate materials. Chemical hazards include flammable liquids, carbon monoxide, welding fumes, pesticides, fiberglass fibers, and silica dust. Employees who work with other people, with animals or with infectious materials can be exposed to biological hazards such as blood, viruses, fungi, mold, and animal droppings. Common symptoms of hazardous substance exposure include:

  • Headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Skin rashes and chemical burns
  • Poisoning
  • Kidney, liver, and lung disorders
  • Nervous system disorders

If a pregnant worker is exposed, the child may be born with severe birth defects and/or long-term disabilities. Scientific and medical research shows that a pregnant woman’s exposure to hazardous substances can significantly impair or even kill an unborn child.

Acute or Chronic Exposure

When a toxic substance comes in contact with the body, it has either an immediate (acute) effect or a long-term (chronic) effect. While spilling a caustic substance on the skin will cause immediate burns, exposure to lead or asbestos usually results in chronic long-term illness or disease. In acute exposures, the dose is delivered in a single event with rapid absorption of a high concentration of the substance. In chronic exposures, the dose is delivered at some frequency (daily or weekly) over a period of time. Typically, chronic exposure occurs at low concentrations.

With certain substances like asbestos and lead, there is no “safe” level of exposure. Asbestos can cause chronic respiratory diseases, lung cancer, lymphoma, and mesothelioma after any asbestos fibers are inhaled or ingested. Lead toxicity is rare after a single exposure but usually occurs after long-term exposure over months or years. Occupational exposure to lead often occurs by inhaling lead particles generated during recycling, smelting, stripping or using lead paints, and using leaded gasoline or aviation fuels. It can also be ingested from contaminated water, lead containers, and lead dust. Generally, diseases from asbestos and lead exposure take a long time to develop, with symptoms often appearing from 10 to 80 years after exposure. When a pregnant woman is exposed to high levels of lead, miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth, low birth weight, and birth defects often occur.

Workers Comp Claims for Exposure

In Illinois, workers who are exposed to hazardous substances while performing their jobs are entitled to workers compensation benefits for occupational injuries and diseases, whether the injury is caused by a single exposure or long-term exposure. Available benefits may include:

  • Covered expenses for medical care and treatments, diagnostic studies, rehabilitation, medications, and necessary medical equipment
  • Temporary disability benefits to compensate for the loss of income during treatment and the recovery period while a worker cannot perform his/her duties
  • Permanent partial disability or permanent total disability benefits to compensate for permanent bodily impairment due to the toxic exposure

Unlike personal injury claims, workers compensation claims are not based on fault. Even if an employer takes all reasonable precautions to eliminate possible exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace, a worker is still entitled to benefits if illness or injury occurs. The only requirement for a workers compensation claim is exposure during employment, and that the exposure caused the illness or injury. The employer does not have to be proven negligent.

The first step in filing a workers compensation claim is notifying the employer of a work-related exposure or injury. In Illinois, an employer must be notified within 45 days of the injury, either verbally or in writing, or an employee may lose some or all of his/her benefits. Immediate medical treatment is important since employers and insurance companies tend to deny delayed claims more often. Giving notice and getting treatment early will reduce the likelihood of a claim denial.

Occupational disease claims must be filed within three years after the date of the last exposure to a hazardous substance that is linked to illness, injury, or disease. An application for compensation must be filed with the Commission within three years after the date of disablement when no compensation has been paid, or within two years after the last compensation payment, whichever comes later.