Exposure to chemicals is one of the most common hazards encountered by employees in the workplace. Medical conditions resulting from chemical exposures can range from minor irritation to permanent scars and disabilities depending on the nature and extent of the exposure.
Chemical exposures occur when hazardous chemicals are ingested, inhaled or come into direct contact with your skin. A variety of conditions ranging from minor to life threatening may develop depending on the nature of the chemical you are exposed to.
They may occur due to chemical spills or other mishaps in the workplace or simply by not following proper safety methods when working around wet chemicals or chemical vapours.
The most common injuries caused by exposure to hazardous chemicals include:
In the workplace, a range of chemical substances are regularly encountered. These may include acids, caustic substances, glues, heavy metals, disinfectants, paint, pesticides, gases, and petroleum products.
The five chemicals which most often cause workplace injuries are;
Jobs at higher risk for burn injuries include: Laboratory staff, farm workers, transport industry workers, riggers, chemical plant employees, mine workers, construction workers, welders, hairdressers, nail technicians, pool cleaners, mechanics and painters.
Different chemicals can cause different effects on the body. Effects will also vary from person to person. Some symptoms are immediate while others may only occur after repeated exposure over time.
If you believe you have been exposed to a hazardous chemical, you should be alert to the onset of the following symptoms (and seek medical help):
You may be able to claim compensation for injuries or illness resulting from a chemical exposure if it resulted from someone else’s negligence or carelessness. Negligence may arise in a variety of settings.
If you are injured at work, you may be able to claim compensation from your employer. Employers must provide proper and adequate means for employees to carry out their work. This includes:
Employers are also bound by workplace exposure standards which have been established for about 700 different chemicals and mixtures. Employers must ensure that no person at the workplace is exposed to an airborne concentration of a chemical exceeds the applicable exposure standard. For hazardous chemicals for which an exposure standard does not exist, airborne concentrations must be kept as low as reasonably practical to minimise risk of injury. If you are injured because your employer neglects to provide safe systems of work, equipment or a safe environment, you may be able to sue for personal injury compensation. This includes injuries incurred over a long period of time, late onset injuries, and aggravations of pre-existing injuries.
Examples: Jeff sustains chemical burns to a large portion of his body when a large unsecured drum of acid is tipped over accidentally by a coworker next to him. Jeff can most likely claim compensation from his employer for his personal injuries.
Rick sustains severe respiratory injuries as a result of spray painting vehicles at work using high gloss spray paint without appropriate safety equipment. He is supplied with a respirator and mask by his employer however he fails to use them. Rick would not be able to claim compensation for his injuries as they were due to his own negligence. However, he could apply for Workers Compensation payments while he is off work.
See also: WorkCover Claims
If you are exposed to chemicals due to a road accident, and the collision was totally or partially due to the fault of another driver or vehicle owner, you can claim compensation from the owner of the vehicle that caused the accident through their Compulsory Third Party insurer.
Examples: Jeff’s vehicle collides with a truck which runs a red light and he is trapped inside his vehicle for a substantial period of time before rescuers free him. During this time carbon monoxide gas accumulates in his car and causes him to go into respiratory arrest and suffer mild brain damage. Jeff can claim compensation from the owner of the delivery truck through its CTP insurer.
Rick is texting while driving and rear-ends a truck which is carrying drums of caustic chemicals. Several drums spill out over Rick’s vehicle and vapours fill his car causing him inhalation burns to his throat and lungs. Because the collision is Rick’s fault he is unable to claim compensation for his injuries (although exceptions may apply for catastrophic accidents). If the accident occurred after July 1, 2016 he may be able to seek necessary and reasonable medical and rehabilitation services through the National Injury Insurance Scheme of Queensland (NIISQ).
See Also: What does CTP Insurance Cover?
Occupiers (including owners of private property and public authorities), have a duty of care toward people coming onto their land. They must take reasonable care to make sure entrants are not exposed to risks that are likely to cause injury. This means if there is something that is potentially dangerous on their property they must rectify it or warn people of the danger.
Common scenarios include someone slipping on a floor surface surface or tripping over an unexpected obstacle on the ground, falling into an unmarked hole in the pavement, or being hit by falling debris from a building site.
Examples: Jeff sustains chemical burns to a large portion of his body when he slips on chemical wax remover which had been left on the hotel lobby floor by tradesmen. Jeff can claim compensation for his injuries from the hotel.
Rachel develops a serious rash as a result of an allergy to a particular pesticide used on plants at her local nursery. The rash broke out after she brushed past the leaves of a few plants and lasted for a week causing scars. The pesticide is not known to cause adverse affects to other people. Rachel has no grounds to claim compensation since the nursery was not negligent.
Serious injuries from chemical exposures often require lengthy hospital stays of weeks or months. Burns can require surgery or other invasive treatments. They are often painful and slow to heal. Nerve and brain damage can cause permanent disabilities. Diseases to the respiratory tract may result in painful medical conditions, poor quality of life and may eventually result in death. The psychological impact of visible disfigurations, particularly due to burns or other scaring on the hands or face can also be significant.
General damages compensate you for the pain and suffering you have experienced as well as any permanent loss of enjoyment of life as a result of your injury. They are calculated by reference to the ISV Scale which rates the seriousness of any injury between 1 and 100 and accords a monetary value range to that rating.
For example a chemical burn injury resulting in extreme facial scarring is rated 21 to 45 corresponding to a monetary range of $38,770 to $113,100 whereas minor lung injuries resulting from toxic fumes is rated 0 to 10 with a monetary range of $0 to $15,350.
To diagnose and treat a chemical exposure injury you may need to consult your general practitioner, consult a specialist, obtain scans, take pain medications use special medical apparatus. The expenses you incur to obtain medical treatment including costs of consultations, diagnostic scans, travel costs, medication and medical equipment may be claimed as compensation. You can also claim for medical costs you will incur in the future as a result of your injury.
Chemical exposure injuries may require surgery or other inpatient treatment. Surgical or hospital costs paid by you can be claimed as compensation as long as the treatment was necessary to treat your condition.
Rehabilitating after a chemical injury may involve intensive therapies as well as home and vehicle modifications and ergonomic aids. Your reasonable costs of rehabilitation can be claimed back as compensation.
If you sustain a chemical exposure injury you may need time off work for several weeks or months immediately after the incident. You can claim compensation for this lost income.
If your injuries prevent you from working in the future to the same extent as you did prior to the injury you may also be able to claim loss of future income earning capacity. This is usually estimated as a lump sum figure based on the age of the person, their usual occupation and other skills.
Compensation can be claimed for superannuation that would have been paid on lost income.
Serious chemical exposure injuries may prevent you from being able to perform tasks such as personal care, cleaning, laundry, mowing your lawns, caring for the garden or other domestic chores. If you formerly performed these duties but are now unable to due to an injury you can claim compensation for care and assistance provided to you by friends, relatives or paid contractors.
In Queensland there is a minimum threshold for this type of compensation.
Interest can generally be claimed on compensation for any out of pocket expenses that are incurred before your claim is resolved.
In general terms, the amount of compensation is gauged by comparing what your life was like before the injury and what it is like now as a result of the injury. Therefore, someone whose injury has had a greater impact on their life will be entitled to more compensation than someone whose injury has had only minimal impact.
The amount of compensation payable for an injury will vary greatly from case to case, depending on a variety of variables such as:
For most personal injury claims, a legal action must be commenced within three years of the date of the injury. If you miss this deadline, your claim will be statute barred and you will lose all rights to claim compensation. However, depending on where your injury occurred or who you are suing, specific pre-court procedures may apply which have their own time limits which are much sooner. If you miss these time limits you may lose your right to pursue your claim if you cannot provide sufficient reasons to the court as to why you delayed and why you should be allowed to proceed with your claim. The time limits specified by some pre-court procedures are set out below.
For minors, the obligation to serve the other party with a Notice of Claim begins when the child turns 18, however a parent or guardian may do this on behalf of the minor before they turn 18. In the case of medical negligence claims, a parent or legal guardian of a minor must serve a Notice of Claim within 6 years of the day when the parent or guardian knew or ought to have known of the injury.
Ensure you seek medical attention as soon as possible if you suspect you are experiencing symptoms of toxic chemical exposure. If it occurs at work, inform your employer of the exposure as soon as possible. Depending on the nature of your injuries and the circumstances which caused it, compensation may or may not be available. You should always seek expert legal help to see if you are able to make a claim.
It’s important to get advice for your specific situation. Check if you can make a risk-free compensation claim and get free initial advice from our Principal lawyer, Greg Smith.
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