Employers have an obligation to provide a safe working environment for their employees. It’s both an ethical obligation and a legal one. In California, the law is strong in its attempts to protect workers from hazards to their health. However, the current protections for workers have been in effect only since 1989, and many cancers and other diseases caused by chemicals and other contaminants in the workplace take years and even decades to develop. The result is that men and women who worked in hazardous environments in the 1970s and even before may just now be discovering that they have serious illnesses that are the consequences of their exposure to toxic substances when they were much younger.
Before the current law went into effect, the obligation on employers to provide a safe workplace were not as strong. However, if an employer did know that something in the workplace was causing an illness, but did not inform the worker, the employer could be found liable for the employee’s illness. An excellent example is mesothelioma, a lung disease caused by the inhalation of asbestos fibers. By the 1920s, physicians had linked mesothelioma to asbestos exposure. The time period for the development of the disease can be as long as 50 years, but employers rarely told employees of the known dangers of working with asbestos.
Cases that revolve around whether an employer knew of workplace dangers can become quite complicated, but workers who find themselves with an unexplained illness should take all possible steps to discover if the disease is a result of workplace exposure to a toxic substance or substance. If you have worked in an environment that may have caused an illness, you should consult our firm.
And keep in mind that the outward appearance of a workplace doesn’t mean that it’s safe. A Clean Room semiconductor manufacturing environment at IBM certainly doesn’t resemble a coal mine, but such Clean Rooms have been very hazardous. As far back as 1985, an IBM chemist wrote a memo to his bosses warning that a disproportionate number of his co-workers in a semiconductor plant had various forms of cancer. While IBM may have been truthful in saying that its Clean Room workplaces did not expose workers to illegal levels of any one chemical, no one had any idea of the cumulative effects of exposure to a variety of toxic substances such as xylene, trichloroethylene, arsenic, and acetone.
Those cancers have struck workers in an environment that is supposed to be clean, and that’s a link among many workers who develop illnesses from from substances in their workplaces. These places don’t look dirty, and the work doesn’t seem to be hazardous. For example, a popcorn plant wouldn’t appear to be a dangerous place to work, but a food additive used to give popcorn a butter flavor and appearance has resulted in a rare form of cancer called “popcorn packer’s lung”.
Other workplaces do look very hazardous, and they are, especially when benzene is present. Benzene is one of the most commonly used chemicals. It’s used in making everything from paints to detergents to plastics to pesticides, and research has conclusively linked benzene exposure to the development of leukemia.
For workers harmed by benzene and other workplace hazards, workers’ compensation insurance will frequently cover medical expenses and provide income replacement. Workers in this situation also have another option, a lawsuit against their employer and possibly against the supplier of the hazardous substances. Such lawsuits have several potential benefits that workers’ compensation insurance can’t offer. The lawsuits may create an economic incentive for the employer to develop a safer workplace. And, the lawsuits may lead to improved efforts to replace benzene and other toxic chemicals with safer products.
We have the capabilities to produce chemicals and to make all sorts of products from them. We also have the ability to make every workplace safe. Any employer who places workers in an unsafe environment should face the consequences of his or her choices.
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