Workers across the country may be exposed to both visible and invisible hazards in their workplace, including many that take years to develop into serious illness. This is true whether you work at a construction site or in a seemingly safe office environment. Fortunately, workers of all stripes are protected by a group of laws requiring employers to provide their employees with a safe workplace and protective gear, if necessary. FindLaw's Workplace Exposure section covers the various kinds of hazards that may be present in your workplace, such as tobacco smoke or asbestos, in addition to summaries of your rights and tips for protecting yourself in the workplace.
Workplace Toxins: Your Right to Know
Even if there are hidden toxins or other hazards in your workplace, your employer is required by law to provide information about such dangers. Usually, information about exposure to toxins can be found in the required "Material Safety Data Sheets" (MSDS). The MSDS contains such details as the toxicity and health effects of a given substance; instructions for first aid; reactivity with other substances; storage and disposal guidelines; recommended protective gear; and procedures for spills or leaks. In addition, your employer also may post warning signs or place warning labels where toxic exposure is possible.
What to Do in the Presence of Toxins in the Workplace
Workplaces with a relatively high risk for toxic exposure typically have strict rules and procedures in place to protect both workers and the legal exposure of the company. Employers that follow these procedures and make a good faith effort to keep workers safe are less likely to face lawsuits when workers are exposed to toxins, while a safe and healthy workforce is generally more productive. If there are known toxins in your workplace, your employer most likely will have rules for how to handle these substances.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provides the following suggestions (this is not a complete list):
- Protective Gear: This may include a mask, goggles, ventilator, or protective gloves
- Ventilation: This often involves the placement of a strong ventilator near the source of the exposure in order to dilute or remove the toxin
- Isolation: This can be as simple as locking the toxic materials away or using high-tech equipment to eliminate direct contact
If you suspect the presence of an otherwise unmarked workplace toxin, tell your supervisor immediately. If your employer is knowingly exposing workers to toxins, keep in mind that whistleblower laws protect employees who report unlawful activity to the proper authorities.
Smoking in the Workplace
Federal law doesn't regulate tobacco smoke in the workplace, but the majority of state laws do. Most states that regulate smoking prohibit tobacco smoke in all enclosed workplaces, including bars and restaurants in many states. Florida, as with a handful of other states, allows smoking in bars. California law, meanwhile, requires businesses with five or more employees to prohibit smoking in enclosed work areas. While most employers don't go out of their way to appease smokers, they typically allow smoking in designated areas (usually outside).
Exceptions to workplace smoking bans include those that usually host private functions (such as weddings), private offices staffed only by smokers, and those where compliance would be unreasonable.
These laws primarily protect non-smokers from the documented health risks from second-hand smoke. non-smokers who develop an illness directly related to workplace tobacco smoke may qualify for workers' compensation benefits.
Click on one of the following links to learn more about workplace exposure to environmental toxins.