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Ninth Circuit rules in favor of OSHA in toxic exposure case

According to a ruling by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, North Carolina employers must determine before work starts whether employees could need respiratory equipment. The ruling was handed down in a case involving workers who said that air quality was poor while performing welds on a ship's voids. As a result of the poor air quality, workers for Seward Ship's Drydock Inc. filed a complaint with OSHA.

The company was given 13 citations for exposing workers to dangerous fumes that contained elements such as iron oxide and manganese. Inhaling these elements could result in labored breathing or developing a condition called "iron lung." The company did have a competent person perform grab samples to ensure that workers were not exposed to dangerous levels of gas. An administrative law judge ruled that this was enough to keep workers safe, and the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission concurred with this decision.

The Ninth Circuit found that the Respiratory Protection Standard required employers to offer appropriate ventilation options whenever their workers could potentially be exposed to harmful gas or fumes. Seward had contended that it had met its obligation by offering respirators to those who wanted to use them when working on the welding project. Employers are urged to review their policies for offering respiratory equipment whenever there is a chance for exposure to dangerous elements.

If a person becomes sick because of toxic exposure while at work, it may be possible for that individual to obtain workers' compensation benefits. Those benefits may help to pay medical bills related to a workplace accident in addition to a portion of a worker's lost wages. An attorney may help a worker file a benefit claim or pursue other forms of relief that are available.

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