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Long-term workplace illnesses remain in OSHA's blind spot

One North Carolina woman found herself in a bind: The job that was helping make ends meet was also making her very ill. As a person with a high school diploma, working in the furniture manufacturing industry was one of the only ways she could find a job that paid above minimum wage. However, the adhesive chemicals her employer used to assemble couch cushions was making the woman -- and many of her coworkers -- lose neurological and motor function.

After spending only five years with the furniture manufacturer, the woman found herself with severe pain and little functionality left in one of her feet. The woman was able to settle with her former employer for the injury sustained as the result of inhaling dangerous fumes over an extended period of time.

The use of "nPB glues" has long been tied to the kind of neurological damage this woman still experiences, but many industries continue to use it. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is well aware that this furniture manufacturer (and other employers) expose employees to this chemical, which is dangerous even in low levels of exposure, but has done little to police it. Observers note that the agency is best equipped to deal with workplace safety concerns that are in the immediate term, rather than long-term issues, such as prolonged chemical exposure.

Workers who are exposed to chemicals over the course several years and contract an illness or injury may be entitled to workers' compensation from their employer. These types of medical conditions can render a person physically unable to work. This has been the case for many involved in North Carolina's furniture manufacturing industry. Understanding your options when dealing with a long-term workplace illness may be confusing; as such, it may be beneficial to consult with an experienced legal professional to provide insight.

The reality is that dealing with workplace illnesses is costly to everyone: employees, employers and the economy as a whole. This is another reason why many hope that efforts will be expanded to protect the health and well-being of industrial workers.

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

  • Our firm has experience working through the complexities of North Carolina workers' compensation laws. To find out more, please visit our Greensboro workplace injury page.

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