Toxic chemical exposure can be deadly, but safety can be managed

Most of us don’t know exactly what hazards might be lurking in the workplace, especially if we don’t work in an industrial setting. It’s true that manufacturing jobs can be…

Most of us don’t know exactly what hazards might be lurking in the workplace, especially if we don’t work in an industrial setting. It’s true that manufacturing jobs can be dangerous, as they often involve exposure to chemicals, high-powered machinery, gases, oily floors and extreme noise and heat. If you’ve read the New York Times recently, however, you may know that hazardous chemicals like toluene and formaldehyde are present in dangerous levels in a wide variety of industries, including nail salons.

Whether you work in a salon, restaurant, hospital, construction site or factory, you could be exposed to toxic chemicals in your workplace. OSHA requires your employer to assess the risk and take all reasonable steps to keep you safe.

The Times revealed that wasn’t happening in many NYC nail salons, but another industry with a toluene-based process is doing a much better job. According to a recent profile in Occupational Health & Safety magazine, the flexible polyurethane foam industry has been successfully protecting their workers at every step in the manufacturing and waste-disposal processes. In fact, although exposure to toluene diisocyanate is known to cause asthma, workers in the flexible polyurethane foam industry have a lower rate of asthma than the general population.

Flexible polyurethane foam, or FPF, comes in a variety of forms and is even more ubiquitous in American society than glamorous fingernails. It’s the foam we use in furniture, mattresses, carpet pads, filters, packing foam, absorbent pads — even shoulder pads in sweaters. Think of any non-organic padded material and it’s almost certainly FPF. In the U.S. alone, we produce more than 1.6 billion pounds of FPF every year.

Once it’s in the marketplace, FPF is not thought to be dangerous because it has been cured. However, the curing process requires toluene diisocyanate which, as we’ve mentioned before, could put workers at risk of occupational asthma. If you get sick, you probably won’t be able to work around toluene diisocyanate anymore — or other chemicals.

The PFF industry’s success in limiting worker exposure was the result of a careful focus on safe handling, use and storage of the chemical, as well as ongoing training programs and medical monitoring of sensitive employees. Sharing knowledge and best practices across the industry was also crucial to the industry-wide effort.

The industry hopes to inspire others to protect their workers better from chemical exposure. Let’s hope they do.

Can I get both workers’ comp and Social Security disability?

If you’ve been hurt or made ill by something at work, you apply for workers’ compensation, right? Right. If you’ve suffered a disabling injury or medical condition that will keep…

If you’ve been hurt or made ill by something at work, you apply for workers’ compensation, right? Right. If you’ve suffered a disabling injury or medical condition that will keep you from working for a year or longer, you apply for Social Security Disability Insurance, right? Right.

What if both are true? 

In Pennsylvania, people who have suffered disabling workplace injuries or illnesses qualify for disability benefits through the workers’ compensation system. If you’re completely unable to work according to American Medical Association standards, you can apply for total disability benefits — and you may also qualify for specific loss benefits if you suffer certain types of bodily harm. Temporary disability benefits are also available.

The disability benefits offered through the workers’ comp program typically include wage-loss payments as well as coverage for your medical care. You can expect to receive about two-thirds of your average weekly pay, up to a certain threshold. If you receive total disability benefits for two years, your employer can require you to get a medical evaluation to determine if you’re still totally disabled or could work with restrictions. If so, your status will change to partially disabled. Partial disability benefits last a maximum of 500 weeks (almost 10 years). However, you can also request a medical evaluation seeking a return to total disability status.

How might Social Security disability come into play?

Working people who meet the Social Security Administration’s criteria for permanent disability may qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance whether or not the disability is work-related. It’s perfectly legal and appropriate to apply for both workers’ comp and SSDI.

That said, the effects of the programs aren’t quite cumulative. According to the Social Security Administration some types of benefits, including workers’ comp wage-loss benefits, will be deducted from your SSDI benefits if the total amount  you’re receiving totals 80 percent of your average earnings before you became disabled. At the same time, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry can also reduce your benefits:  If you receive SSDI, unemployment insurance, severance pay or certain other income, your wage-loss payments can be reduced by 50 cents for every dollar you receive.

A disabling injury is tough, and you’ll need all the help you can get. If you have questions about which option is likely to get you the most help, an attorney can answer them for you.