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Occupational Exposure: Your Legal Rights When Work Is (Literally) Toxic


A toxic work environment doesn’t just mean a nasty workplace culture, it can also mean your workplace is literally toxic, poisonous, or infectious.

If you or a loved one is exposed to harmful substances or chemicals while on the job, the injuries that result could be costly, painful, and devastating. When is it necessary to hire a lawyer after a workplace accident? Do you need an attorney if you already have worker’s compensation? We here at Smith Law Center have years of experience advocating for unjustly injured individuals, and have compiled this primer on occupational exposure and your legal options after a negligent workplace leak, spill, or contamination.

What Is Occupational Exposure? Definition and Real-World Examples

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) defines occupational exposure as “reasonably anticipated contact” with potentially infectious materials such as blood or harmful chemicals. However, just because your job requires interaction with dangerous substances doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be protected from workplace injury.

Here are examples of workers whose jobs entail occupational exposure, and the proper protections those workplaces should provide:

Workers With Occupational Exposure to Bloodborne Pathogens

OHSA describes bloodborne pathogens as infectious microorganisms carried in human blood that can cause disease in humans. This includes viruses like HIV and various hepatitises, as well as bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). These types of pathogens can cause illness, organ damage, and even death if left untreated, and there are workers who may be exposed to them regularly.

  • Healthcare and food processing workers: This category includes doctors, nurses, medics, and other hospital and dental workers, as well as veterinarians, zoo employees, and meat packaging workers—all are regularly exposed to potentially infectious mammalian fluids like blood, vomit, saliva, urine, feces, semen, and snot. 
    • Protections: Personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks, gloves, and gowns are necessary, as are diligent practices of hand-washing and instrument sterilization.
  • Correctional facility workers: The employees of jails and prisons include the guards, administrators, healthcare workers (medical professionals and counselors), and maintenance crews. Due to the insulated nature of correctional facilities, infections may spread uniquely and rapidly among the incarcerated population and the staff.
    • Protections: The CDC outlines an Exposure Protection Plan for jails that recommends universal precautions like mandatory vaccinations for communicable diseases (such as Hepatitis B), protocols to follow when any bodily fluids are present, and accountability for the response plan. Other measures like regular cleaning and pest control help protect the population from outbreaks.
  • Tattoo and body art vendors: Those who work in tattoo parlors, ear-piercing kiosks, or body modification clinics have regular contact with human blood, bodily fluid, and used needles. 
    • Protections: Gloves, sterilization procedures, and proper needle storage and disposal are vital to avoid the spread of disease or infection. 
  • Waste management and sanitation workers: Whether you work in a waste management, in trash collection, or in a janitorial capacity, jobs that entail cleaning up after humans or animals can expose workers to toxic molds, fungus, excrement, and rotten substances that may transmit or cause illness. 
    • Protections: Just as with other jobs dealing in bodily fluids, PPE is essential, but so are environmental protections like sufficient ventilation for those who work with garbage or sewage.. 

Medical staff wearing gowns, masks, goggles, and hair coverings for safety.

Workers With Occupational Exposure to Harmful Chemicals

Those who work with raw chemicals or with materials that produce harmful chemicals when handled or modified often require unique protections on the job.

  • Miners: Drilling, mining, and blasting jobs expose workers to harmful dusts like silica (the most common mineral present in earth) and potentially coal particles.
    • Protections: Respirators, face shields, protective clothing and gloves, as well as regular safety training and protocols are necessary.
  • Construction and demolition workers: Those who build and demolish structures are at risk of exposure to the same sort of dusts as miners, as well as the substances particular to building construction like concrete, sealants, paint, and known toxic materials like lead and asbestos (a fibrous mineral previously used for insulation that can cause mesothelioma cancer). 
    • Protections: Again, these jobs require proper safety like gloves and masks, proper training and emergency procedures, as well as 
  • Welders, farmers, railroad workers, and those who work with diesel fuel: The chemicals found in molten metals, fertilizers, and gasoline can expose workers to both respiratory and contact poisonings. Farmers in particular also have to guard against organic chemicals like mold spores and allergens such as hay.
    • Protections: Proper protective gear for the skin, eyes, and airways are essential, as are well-maintained tools and facilities to avoid fume buildup.
  • Chemical plant employees: Any facility that makes industrial chemicals (“commodity” or “bulk” chemicals such as chlorine and hydrogen peroxide, as well as “specialty” or “effect” chemicals like those for adhesives, cosmetics, and fragrances) entail a risk of chemical exposure.
    • Protections: PPE is again a must-have, but so are decontamination stations in case of accidents, sensors that monitor the amount of poisonous chemicals in the air, and failsafes so that toxic materials don’t escape their chambers.

This is only a brief list highlighting different industry workers who regularly deal with hazardous materials of organic and inorganic varieties. Ask yourself if you’ve been provided the appropriate protective gear relevant to your position. If not, you may want to contact a law firm that represents occupational exposure cases, for professional advice on how to demand your rightful protections.

It’s also possible that you are already experiencing the symptoms of workplace exposure. The following section outlines those warning signs.

Factory workers and technicians with masks, helmets, and eye protection.

Symptoms of Occupational Exposure

You may have heard the phrase, “It’s a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it.” It’s true that many jobs which require certain levels of occupational exposure are essential. If you or a loved one are employed in such a capacity, how can you tell if you’ve been injured by harmful substances at work?

The following are common symptoms that may indicate chemical toxicity, bloodborne pathogen infection, or poisoning:

  • Respiratory inflammation: If your nose, throat, or lungs are irritated or inflamed, you may notice by persistent coughing, sneezing, labored breathing, or a tightness in your chest.
  • Stomach/gut pain: Unusual gastrointestinal discomfort or pain—including nausea, vomiting, an unexplained feeling of fullness, diarrhea, or constipation—could mean you are sick. Likewise, anemia of the blood could be a sign of digestive malabsorption, the underlying cause of which could lead back to occupational exposure.
  • Kidney damage: Kidney or renal damage may manifest as back pain, frequent urination, or changes in the color of urine.
  • Liver malfunction: Signs of liver damage (aka hepatological damage) share some similarities with kidney damage symptoms, as they are your principal detox organs. Thus, if you experience changes to urination or unexplained abdominal pain, seek medical help to identify which organ is in distress. Other liver-specific symptoms may include a yellowing of the eyes or skin (jaundice), itchy skin, lower leg swelling, nausea/vomiting, or chronic fatigue.
  • Skin rashes: Dermatological reactions like rashes, redness, swelling, itchiness, hives, or eye irritation could be signs of toxic exposure.
  • Reproductive irregularity: Issues with infertility or miscarriage could arise from workplace exposure to harmful substances.
  • Brain injury: Headaches, confusion, dizziness, twitching, convulsions, or (in extreme cases) coma could be symptoms of neurological interference caused by poisoning. Smith Law Center has extensive experience supporting our clients in brain injury cases.

A man exhibiting symptoms of occupational exposure gets medical help.

Worryingly, each of the above symptoms could be explained by something more common than toxic exposure or infection. This is why it’s important to listen to your body, know what is normal vs. abnormal regarding your health, and if these types of symptoms persist, it’s vital that you seek professional medical help.

Confirmation of the underlying cause matters. If the doctor tells you that you ate a bad clam or you have a normal springtime allergy, you’ll have peace of mind. However, if the root of the issue is poisoning from a workplace exposure, here’s why early detection is critical.

An early occupational exposure-related medical diagnosis may:

  • save your life
  • prevent permanent or long-lasting damage
  • document the incident for future proof

Your life and health are irreplaceable, and they are the priorities. However, the paperwork surrounding a diagnosis may also be essential for getting compensation for your medical treatment, and for getting your workplace safe once more so that you, your coworkers, and potentially your surrounding community are protected from poisoning. Ensuring your personal safety could also quickly improve the wellbeing of so many others.

Your swift response to occupational exposure could save lives. Find a lawyer who will fight the good fight on your behalf.

When Should You Contact an Occupational Exposure Lawyer?

Contacting a lawyer with experience handling occupational exposure comes after first consulting a doctor. Once you have a diagnosis in hand, it’s a lawyer’s job to gather evidence of the exposure.

These tasks may include following up with medical documentation, researching workplace standards, testing at the worksite, interviewing others involved in the potential exposure, and getting access to private documents that could prove culpability.

It’s important to understand that time is of the essence. Legally, there may be a statute of limitations that narrows your window of opportunity for justice to as little as two years from the date of injury (and times may vary depending on state and industry). The moment you discover you’ve been injured on the job, your first action should be to follow your doctor’s advice. Your second action? Seek legal advice, and let an occupational exposure attorney set the ball rolling on meeting filing deadlines to secure your rights.

Is Workers’ Compensation Good Enough? How a Damages Award from a Lawsuit Can Help

If your workplace acknowledges that you were injured on the job after being exposed to a harmful chemical or environment, you may receive workers’ compensation and think that is the limit of what you’re entitled to.

However, workers’ compensation may not be enough to cover the cost of:

  • Medical bills, co-pays, specialists, drugs, equipment, recovery therapy, etc.
  • Lost wages, advancement opportunities, and earning potential
  • Emotional and psychological support for you and your family
  • Defense against potential workplace backlash for sounding the alarm on an incident where the company is liable, including acts like demotions, harassment, withholding pay or benefits, and/or wrongful termination 
  • Efforts to reform the workplace and prevent future occupational exposure

It is illegal for employers to retaliate against employees for whistleblowing. We here at Smith Law Center advise you to reach out to us for a free consultation on your protected rights, and what types of damages you may be entitled to in a lawsuit.

Individual Exposure vs. Group Class Action

Another aspect to consider when seeking a workplace exposure lawyer: did this exposure happen to you, or did it happen to many other people?

Individual Exposure

If you or your loved one were the sole person exposed to a toxic or damaging situation at work, you may need a lawyer to be your personal advocate.

Often when it comes to workplace incidents, it feels like a David vs. Goliath fight, the little guy against a giant. The company may try to blame you for endangering yourself, or may threaten your coworkers to isolate and discourage you from pursuing your full legal rights (tactics often seen in union-busting). You may even be pressured into signing away your ability to sue in exchange for a one-time payout.

An attorney well-versed in occupational exposure law could quickly identify and protect you from such bullying maneuvers.

Group Class Action

If the workplace exposure incident that impacted you also impacted others in the company, in the building where you work, or the surrounding environment (as in incidents of chemical spills, groundwater contamination, etc.), an attorney may be even more necessary.

First, a legal professional may identify a class action case (a lawsuit pursued by an individual or small group, acting on behalf of a larger group), even if you personally were unaware of it. This could happen in instances where you were the first to notice symptoms and visit a doctor, or in cases where the company you work for is intentionally downplaying or covering up the extent of an exposure incident.

Second, even if you and your coworkers or community are aware that you may have a collective case, the fight for justice becomes different. In order to avoid payout, companies or insurance agencies may work to split the group, use delaying legal tactics to exhaust group cohesion, and possibly even bribe or threaten group leaders to avoid accountability. Having an experienced legal advocate and veteran law firm behind you puts those liable on the defensive, not you.

Find a lawyer who will fight the good fight on your behalf.

Contact a Lawyer to Discuss What You Deserve

Those who are exposed to toxic chemicals or bloodborne pathogens at work deserve the highest levels of protection and care. If you’re in the Virginia area, call Smith Law Center at (757) 244-7000 or fill out our contact form to have your specific questions answered for free.

Time may be of the essence in cases of workplace exposure and contamination, so please do not hesitate to reach out for professional advice. Your swift response to occupational exposure could save lives.

Occupational Exposure FAQs

Do I need a lawyer after occupational exposure?

Reaching out to a lawyer to ask this very question is advised: a competent attorney’s office can quickly help answer your questions and assess your need for legal support. Also note that time is of the essence to begin a legal case regarding occupational exposure before the statute of limitations runs out.

Do I need an attorney if I have workers’ compensation?

Workers’ comp may not cover all of the damages, lost wages, medical treatment, and emotional trauma of an occupational exposure incident. A lawyer can help you get full coverage beyond workers’ compensation, and aid in ensuring your workplace is made safe going forward.

Is my occupational exposure incident a class action case?

An experienced attorney can provide a robust defense for an individual against a large company, or may quickly identify and onboard your coworkers and community for a larger class action lawsuit. Call Smith Law Center at (757) 244-7000 to discuss what kind of legal advocacy suits your situation.

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SPEAK TO US NOW FOR FREE

Your legal questions answered, completely free of charge.

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IF WE DON’T WIN, YOU DON’T PAY

There are absolutely no out-of-pocket fees for filing a claim.

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DELIVERING RESULTS SINCE 1949

We are one of Virginia’s largest and most successful law firms.

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU - Tablet View

WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU


Use the simple form below to send a message directly to our lawyers. We will respond within 1 hour or less during business hours.
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