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Toxic Exposure in the Workplace

Every day, workers throughout the U.S. are exposed to hazardous chemicals and toxins at work. This article will discuss ways to identify potentially dangerous toxins at work, and what to do if you discover that toxins are in fact present.

Find Out What Toxins are Present

You have a right to work in a safe and healthy workplace. If hazardous chemicals or toxins are present at your workplace, your employer is required by law to provide you with information about these toxins. Often, the information about these toxins is provided in what are known as "Material Safety Data Sheets" (MSDS). An MSDS is designed to provide both workers and emergency personnel with the proper procedures for handling or working with a particular substance. MSDS's include information such as physical data, toxicity, health effects, first aid, reactivity, storage, disposal, protective equipment, and spill and leak procedures.

Your employer may have MSDS's on specific chemicals as well as MSDS's on products that contact hazardous chemicals. For example, there could be an MSDS on toluene (a chemical) and also on welding rods (a product containing toluene). If your employer does not have MSDS's available for your inspection, there are numerous Web sites that can provide this information for you.

Another way to discover whether toxic substances are present in your workplace is to look for warning labels or warning signs. A hazardous chemical or product will usually have a warning label on the packaging in which it is shipped. Similarly, your employer may post warning signs in areas with poor ventilation or where toxins are present.

What to Do if Toxins are Present

There are several things you can do to prevent or reduce your exposure to toxins. The following is only a partial list of possibilities from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Substitution. The risk of injury or illness may be reduced by replacement of an existing process, material, or equipment with a similar but less hazardous item.
  • Isolation. Hazards are controlled by isolation whenever an appropriate barrier or limiter is placed between the hazard and an individual who may be affected by the hazard. Examples include machine guards, electrical insulation, glove boxes, acoustical containment, and remote controlled equipment.
  • Ventilation. The control of a potentially hazardous airborne substance by ventilation can be accomplished by one or two methods: diluting the concentration of the substance by mixing it with uncontaminated air, or capturing and removing the substance at its source or point of generation.
  • Administrative Control. Operating practices can be changed to reduce the exposure of individuals to chemical hazards. These practices may take the form of limited access to high hazard areas, preventive maintenance programs to reduce the potential for leakage of hazardous substances, or adjusted work schedules.
  • Personal Protective Equipment. Use of a personal ventilator, mask, or protective clothing can reduce exposure to toxins.

What You Can Do

To ensure your safety and the safety of your co-workers, make sure you are aware of potential toxins in your workplace. Ask your employer for MSDS's, look for warning labels, and if you discover toxins, take preventative measures to reduce or eliminate your exposure. If you believe that you have already been exposed to a toxin, you should seek medical attention immediately. You may also want to contact a qualified attorney to discuss your legal rights.

Find an experienced toxic torts attorney near you here.

See also: (from the Accident and Injury Center)

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