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Safety regulations don't prevent workplace illnesses

When safety regulations are not followed, New York workers understand that accidents can happen. When a workplace accident occurs workers can be seriously injured. However, accidents aren't the only way that workers are injured on the job -- workplace illnesses also cause harm to employees. One of the biggest causes of workplace illnesses is the exposure to toxic substances in the workplace.

In fact, data shows that 40,000 Americans die each year from illnesses caused by exposure to harmful chemicals while at work. This is 10 times more workers than those killed in workplace accidents. Furthermore, 200,000 people are disabled each year because of their exposure to chemicals in the air at their workplaces. These airborne illnesses include grinder's rot, asbestosis, black lung and pneumoconiosis.

Unlike the safety regulations created by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration that try to prevent workplace accidents, regulations preventing workplace illnesses are often sparse and ineffective. Since chemicals generally cause these illnesses, if one chemical is banned by OSHA, or other regulatory agencies, employers often switch to another legal chemical which can be just as bad or worse for workers.

Furthermore, these workplace illnesses can also be difficult to diagnose. When a workplace accident occurs, it is easier for a worker to show that something at work caused the injury. With a workplace illness, exposure may happen over weeks, months or years making it difficult to pinpoint a cause and hold an employer liable.

Despite these difficulties, New York workers need to understand that workplace illnesses are covered under workers' compensation just like workplace accidents. These illnesses are often preventable. Those employers who choose not to protect workers or follow safety regulations must be held accountable. If employees suffer from workplace illness they should fight to enforce their rights and obtain the compensation they need and deserve.

Source: The New York Times, "As OSHA Emphasizes Safety, Long-Term Health Risks Fester," Ian Urbina, March 30, 2013

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