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Employers have a duty to limit dangerous chemical exposures

In light of the recent fire at the Chemtool plant in Rockton, we thought we should discuss employers’ responsibilities around chemical hazards and other toxic substances in the workplace. Employers do have a duty to mitigate these risks for their employees, and it goes far beyond responding to fires and leaks.

According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), there are four main types of controls for chemical hazards in the workplace. These controls are hierarchical, with elimination or substitution considered the most desirable control.

Can the hazardous substance be eliminated? Can a less hazardous substance be substituted? Elimination or substitution is the most effective way to prevent employees from being exposed to hazardous substances such as chemicals in the workplace.

Can a physical change be made to the workplace to reduce or eliminate the hazard? OSHA has a longstanding policy of promoting engineering controls as a method of reducing employee exposure to toxic substances. This can include:

  • Changing processes to minimize employee contact with the substance
  • Isolation or enclosure of the process
  • Using wet methods to reduce the generation of dusts and particulates
  • General ventilation for dilution
  • Use of fume hoods for dilution

Can a work practice be changed to control exposure? When there is no choice but to have workers interact with a hazardous substance, employee work schedules should be rotated or adjusted so that a single group of workers is not over-exposed.

Can personal protective equipment reduce the risk? This is the least effective and least desirable solution. It includes respiratory protection, gloves, eye protection and chemical protective clothing.

What should I do if I am exposed and become sick?

Illness or injury from a workplace chemical exposure is generally covered by workers’ compensation insurance. If you have been exposed to a hazardous or toxic substance and you have become injured or ill, the first step is to get any emergency aid you need. Then, before you get non-emergency medical care, you should notify your employer and then begin the workers’ comp claim process.

Keep good records of your medical care and any continuing health problems. Take notes about how your injury or illness is affecting your daily life and your ability to do your job. If your employer’s workers’ comp insurer denies or limits your claim, talk to a workers’ compensation attorney.