11107561_sChemical exposure is difficult to avoid today; many people in Chicago face regular exposure to potentially harmful substances, from environmental pollutants to home cleaning products. Many people, however, do not worry about the possibility of hazardous chemical exposure in the workplace. Unfortunately, despite state and federal guidelines designed to protect employees, exposure to workplace chemicals and the resulting health problems harm many workers.

Uncovering hazardous chemicals

The effects of workplace chemical exposure are not always felt immediately. While high levels of exposure may cause immediate symptoms such as dizziness, fatigue and nausea, lower levels of exposure can be hard to detect before it is too late. As an example, asbestos exposure can cause mesothelioma, a rare cancer, and asbestosis, a lung disease, but these illnesses and their symptoms rarely surface immediately. It can take a decade or more after exposure for symptoms to appear.

Federal law requires employers to maintain a Material Safety Data Sheet, which contains information on all hazardous chemicals the employer uses. Employees should use this resource to learn about exposure risks they may face. For every chemical, the MSDS describes health effects, safe exposure levels, storage procedures, safety protocols and properties such as reactivity.

In addition to utilizing the MSDS, employees should read warning labels and directions on chemical products to ensure they use the chemical in question safely. However, these measures may not always sufficiently protect employees against toxic chemical exposure.

Liability for exposure 

When hazardous chemical use cannot be avoided, employers must mitigate the associated risks as much as possible. Hazardous chemicals should be isolated, replaced with less hazardous options, placed in restricted-access areas or used only in well-ventilated areas. Unfortunately, employees do not control these procedures and may face chemical exposure if an employer is negligent.

When employers in Illinois fail to provide a safe work environment, employees may be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits. Illinois uses a no-fault system in which workers must document their injuries and adhere to claim deadlines. In some cases, workers harmed by chemical exposure may additionally be able to pursue compensation from a third party, such as the manufacturer of the product that caused the illness.

Deadlines for occupational illness claims are not based on a specific date of injury, since it usually is impossible for victims to identify one incident that caused the illness. Illinois law stipulates that victims must file suit within three years of discovering the condition. Rather than waiting while the deadline approaches, victims can benefit from seeking legal counsel early so they can understand their rights and pursue the treatment they need.

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