Occupational skin diseases are one of the most common occupational diseases. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that in the United States more than 13 million workers are potentially exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed through their skin. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, over 15% of the reported occupational diseases were skin diseases.
These diseases include, but are not limited to, contact dermatitis (eczema), allergic dermatitis, skin cancers, and infections. Contact dermatitis, which has symptoms of painful and itchy skin, blisters, redness, and swelling, is the most commonly reported occupational skin disease. Workers in food service, cosmetology, health care, agriculture, cleaning, painting, mechanics, and construction industries and sectors are at risk of developing these diseases.
This type of occupational disease is clearly preventable. To control and prevent exposure to chemicals that cause occupational skin diseases, OSHA recommends that employers switch to less toxic chemicals, redesign the work process to avoid the splashes or immersion, and have employees wear protective gloves and clothing.
Vinyl chloride is a colorless gas that is used primarily to make polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC is used to make plastic products ranging from pipes to packaging materials.
Workers are primarily exposed to vinyl chloride through inhalation in facilities where vinyl chloride is produced or used. Exposure to high levels of vinyl chloride around 10,000 ppm can cause a person to feel dizzy or sleepy. At around 25,000 ppm, a person may pass out. Breathing fresh air will help a person recover from these episodes. However, long-term exposure to vinyl chloride can cause serious health problems including Raynaud’s phenomenon (fingers blanch, numbness and discomfort when exposed to the cold), liver damage, liver cancer (hepatic angiosarcoma), brain and lung cancers, lymphoma, and leukemia.
Recovery for workers injured from exposure to vinyl chloride is more successful when the worker has been diagnosed with angiosarcoma of the liver because several studies have shown that it is causally associated with occupational exposure to vinyl chloride. While vinyl chloride exposure has been linked to other types of cancer, recovery may be prevented because it is more difficult to prove causation.
Sometimes prospective clients ask whether they developed cancer as a result of their job. Most claims arise from accidents and obviously cancer is a slowly developing process. However, cancer can be an occupational-related disease for which medical and disability benefits may be awarded under the North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Act. A doctor must give his or her medical opinion to a reasonable degree of medical probability that the patient was at an increased risk of developing the disease (i.e. cancer) as compared to the general population, and did in fact develop the disease as a result of exposure to a cancer causing substance at work.
Case in point: in September, a Texas firefighter was awarded workers’ compensation benefits after he developed lung, colon, and liver cancer. In the firefighter’s case, he had been a firefighter for over 20 years and was exposed to “carcinogens such as firetruck exhaust, heat, smoke, and chemicals.” The Texas administrative law judge awarded benefits, but keep in mind “Texas has a presumptive disability law that says firefighters and other first responders are presumed to have developed cancer while on the job under certain conditions.” Unfortunately, North Carolina does not have this presumption for our first responders and firefighters, and the burden of proof is more difficult in this state.
Here is a link to the OSHA website containing standards that apply to substances that are classified as carcinogens or potential carcinogens according to the National Toxicity Program.