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Dangerous chemicals and workplace injuries: state and federal law

We ended 2013 with a post exploring the issue of dangerous chemicals in the workplace. Let's continue to follow that thread as we move into the new year.

After all, there is much that needs to be done to prevent injuries to workers from chemicals that are toxic, hazardous or otherwise harmful to their health.

Last week, an important federal appeals court issued an important ruling on the subject. In this post, we will discuss that case.

The court was the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit (the DC Circuit). The question involved the interaction between state and federal law in cases where workers are injured on the job by a failure to label harmful chemicals properly.

The DC Circuit held that workers who are injured by dangerous chemicals due to insufficient warning labels are not limited to federal lawsuits. Injured workers also have the opportunity to proceed under state law.

It's true that federal law takes precedence over state law in certain areas of the law. And it is also true that regulation of warning labels is a matter for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

But just because there are federal regulations on something doesn't necessarily mean injured workers are prevented from using state laws to sue corporations for personal injuries.

Of course, the issue of when a personal injury lawsuit, rather than a workers' compensation claim, is the right remedy can be a difficult one. Our point in this post, though, is simply that facile arguments for federal preemption do not always carry the day in cases of workplace injuries caused by dangerous chemicals.

Source: Mother Jones, "Court Beefs Up Protections for Workers Injured by Chemicals," Erika Eichelberger, Jan. 2, 2014

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