Wednesday, March 4, 2009

MN Work Comp and Ammonia Exposure at Work

On March 3, 2009, in Willmar, Minnesota, seven employees at the Jennie-O Turkey plant were treated at Rice Memorial Hospital and released, after an ammonia leak forced an evacuation of the plant.

Ammonia exposure and exposure to other chemicals at work is covered by Minnesota workers’ compensation. Not only are medical expenses related to the chemical exposure covered by work comp, but if an employee exposed to toxic chemicals misses work due the exposure, the employer and/or the work comp insurance company are responsible for paying wage loss benefits. If permanent injuries occur as the result of the exposure, permanency benefits may be available.

Ammonia (NH3) is one of the most commonly used and produced industrial chemicals in the United States. Some of its chemical and physical properties include:
  • At room temperature, ammonia is a colorless, highly irritating gas with a pungent, suffocating odor.
  • In its pure form, ammonia is known as anhydrous ammonia and it is hygroscopic, which means it easily absorbs moisture.
  • Ammonia has alkaline properties and it is corrosive.
  • Ammonia gas dissolves easily in water and forms ammonium hydroxide, which is a caustic solution.
  • Ammonia gas is easily compressed and forms a clear liquid under pressure.
  • Ammonia is not highly flammable, but containers of ammonia may explode when exposed to high heat.
Ammonia exposure can cause catastrophic injury or death. It interacts immediately on contact with moisture found in a person’s skin, eyes, mouth, and respiratory tract to form a very caustic solution called ammonium hydroxide. Ammonium hydroxide damages tissues and causes an inflammatory reaction.

Inhalation of ammonia can cause severe and even life threatening health conditions. Exposure to high concentrations of ammonia in the air causes immediate burning of the nose, throat and respiratory tract. This can cause damage to the throat and lungs resulting in respiratory distress or failure, which may lead to death. Lower concentrations can cause coughing and nose and throat irritation. Lung and throat injuries due to ammonia exposure may be permanent and can cause long-term health problems.

Eye or skin contact with low concentrations of liquid or gaseous ammonia can produce immediate skin or eye irritation. Higher concentrations can cause severe burns to the skin and injury to the eyes. Eye contact with concentrated ammonia can cause permanent eye damage or even blindness. The full extent of an eye injury due to ammonia exposure may not be evident for up to a week after the exposure. Skin contact with liquefied ammonia can also cause frostbite injury.

Ingestion of concentrated ammonia can result in corrosive damage to the mouth, throat, and stomach.

Ammonia exposure is treated by decontamination with water, and supportive therapies to repair damaged skin, eyes, throat and lung tissues. Unfortunately, exposure to ammonia can have serious, long-term health effects.

Hopefully, the seven individuals treated for ammonia exposure in Willmar fully recover without lasting problems. Ammonia exposure cases can become very complicated, very quickly, particularly when an employee has suffered lung or respiratory injuries. This is because it is somewhat difficult to measure the extent of damage to a person’s lungs and airways after ammonia exposure. The case may also be complicated if the employee has a history of smoking or asthma prior to the exposure. Workers’ compensation insurance companies frequently argue that the employee has not sustained long term lung damage, or that the damage was caused by something else. It’s wise to have an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer on your side.

We recently represented a gentleman who was sent by his employer to an off-site location to fix a leaking pipe. The plant where he went had been evacuated due to a chemical leak. He was exposed to high concentrations of an unknown chemical, but he was assured by the on-site safety coordinator that he did not need a respirator or protective clothing. After several hours of exposure, he was experiencing burning eyes, a cough, difficulty breathing, and disorientation. He also experienced long term lung problems. The insurance company denied his claim. We successfully procured workers’ compensation benefits on his behalf, and he has a civil claim pending for negligence against the company where he was doing the repairs. They should have warned him of the danger of the chemicals he was exposed to, but they assured him that he was safe and directed him to keep working in the dangerous environment without protective breathing apparatus or clothing.

We have successfully represented a number of employees who suffered lung and respiratory damage as the result of exposure to chemicals at work. In some cases, in addition to workers’ compensation benefits, if a party is exposed to the chemical as the result of the negligence of a third party, other than the employer or co-workers, that employee may have a civil liability claim. An experienced workers’ compensation lawyer can help make sure you receive all the benefits you are entitled to. To schedule a free, no-obligation consultation, call Meuser & Associates at 877-746-5680 or click here to send us an email.

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