Who’s liable if you’ve suffered illness from hydrogen sulfide exposure at work?
Hydrogen sulfide (H2S) exposure is a major risk in certain industries. Here’s how to know if you’re eligible for workers’ compensation or if you can and should file a lawsuit.
H2S is hydrogen sulfide. It’s a colorless, flammable, highly toxic gas that is extremely hazardous to human health. It has a strong smell, sometimes like rotten eggs. It occurs naturally in places like swamps, volcanic gases, and petroleum deposits. It’s also produced by the breakdown of organic matter like human or animal waste.
Other terms for H2S are swamp gas, sewer gas, sink damp and sour damp.
Interestingly, though the rotten egg smell is very strong initially, continued exposure makes you “immune” to the smell. If you’re exposed to high quantities of H2S, you could lose your sense of smell immediately, and then you don’t realize you’re being exposed until after significant harm has occurred.
Dangers of H2S exposure
Even in very low concentrations, H2S can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. At moderate levels, you might experience headaches, nausea, vomiting, coughing, and difficulty breathing. A few breaths of high-concentration air with H2S can cause convulsions, coma, or death.
|Hydrogen sulfide in parts per million (ppm)
|Symptoms/consequences from exposure
|Typical background concentration in a normal environment (no harm)
|Noticeable rotten egg smell
|Smell becomes more obvious. May cause nausea, headache, watery eyes and sleep disturbances.
|Memory loss, dizziness, headache, watery eyes, sleep disturbances
|Loss of smell, eye irritation and coughing after exposure for 2-15 minutes. Drowsiness and difficulty breathing after 15-30 minutes. Death is likely after 48 hours.
|Loss of smell.
|Serious eye irritation (conjunctivitis) and respiratory tract irritation after one hour. Fluid in the lungs after prolonged exposure.
|Could collapse within five minutes. Serious eye damage after 30 minutes, death within about 30-60 minutes.
|Collapse and loss of consciousness within a single breath or two, breathing will stop and death can occur within minutes.
|Nearly immediate death.
Most instances of harmful H2S exposure happen when people are at work.
OSHA & NIOSH guidelines for workers exposed to H2S
The Occupational Health & Safety Administration (OSHA) has strict guidelines for conditions under which employees must be protected from H2S at work.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends that workers are exposed to no more than 10 ppm of H2S for no more than 10 minutes. OSHA permits 10 ppm for eight hours for workers in the construction and shipyard industries and 20 ppm for general industry workers.
Workers most likely to be at risk for hydrogen sulfide exposure include those in:
- Oil refineries
- Natural gas extraction
- Rayon manufacturing plants
- Wastewater treatment facilities
- Agriculture, on farms with manure pits
- Sanitation, maintaining or cleaning sewers and septic tanks
That means employers in these industries are required to take certain safety measures in order to protect workers. Some of the risks of exposure comes from chemical leaks, fires, and explosions.
Measures to protect workers from H2S illness
OSHA provides these guidelines for workers against H2S exposure:
- Air must be tested for the presence and concentration of H2S. This must be done by a qualified person who uses a multi-gas meter or hydrogen sulfide detector tubes.
- The area must be continually ventilated to remove the gas if it is present.
- If the gas can’t be removed, any person who enters the area must use appropriate respiratory protection and other personal protective equipment, along with having rescue and communication equipment.
A person entering a dangerous H2S atmosphere at 100 ppm or higher:
- Must have a full facepiece pressure demand self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) with a minimum service life of 30 minutes; or
- A combination full facepiece pressure demand supplied-air respirator with an auxiliary self-contained air supply.
A person entering an area with H2S levels below 100 may have:
- An air purifying respirator with a filter cartridge/canister appropriate for hydrogen sulfide; and
- A full facepiece respirator to prevent eye irritation.
A worker who has been in an area with hydrogen sulfide must be monitored for signs of overexposure.
Workers’ compensation claims for H2S injuries
Workers’ compensation is the legal remedy for people who’ve been injured at work.
If you’ve been injured or suffered an illness from work, you can be covered for your related expenses through your employer’s workers’ compensation insurance. Nearly every employer must carry workers’ comp insurance, and it’s expressly to cover illnesses or injuries sustained on the job.
Workers’ compensation is no-fault insurance.
That means you don’t need to prove that someone—your employer, or anyone else—was at fault for the injury. You only need to prove that the injury or illness happened while at work or was caused by a condition or circumstance in your workplace.
This benefits both the employee and the employer. As the employee, you’re spared a potential legal battle for proving liability. However, it also prevents you from filing a lawsuit; your sole remedy is workers’ compensation benefits. It benefits the employer by allowing it to avoid a costly, time-consuming, and possibly reputation-damaging lawsuit.
Each state has its own laws for workers’ compensation benefits. However, the typical benefits include:
- A portion of lost wages, present and future, if you’re no longer able to work or work in the same capacity as previous to the illness or injury;
- Medical treatment;
- Permanent disability payments;
- Survivor benefits for the depends of a worker who dies.
Can I file a lawsuit for workplace H2S exposure?
If you experienced symptoms of illness from H2S that cost you money (i.e. you received treatment or needed to take time off from work), you can file a lawsuit against a negligent third party that caused the exposure.
Who is a negligent third party?
If you’re working on a property not owned by your employer and the negligence was on behalf of the property owner, that’s one example of third party liability. Another example is if there’s a failure of your personal protective gear; you might have a lawsuit against the manufacturer of the equipment. In yet another instance, if you’re on a work site shared with contractors from another company and their negligence causes your exposure illness, you might be able to file a lawsuit against that contractor.
In essence, if negligence can be attributed to any person or entity other than your employer or another employee of your employer, you can file a third-party lawsuit.
Your employer has a legal duty to protect their employees from harm. They are required to take reasonable measures and follow best practices for keeping you safe and understanding and preventing the effects of hydrogen sulfide. If you believe they’re not fulfilling that duty, you can also file a complaint with OSHA, even if you’ve not yet been injured.
If you need more information, if you’ve experienced symptoms of hydrogen sulfide exposure or any workplace injury or illness, or if you would like to make a workers’ compensation claim, you can contact a personal injury or workers’ compensation lawyer near you for advice and guidance.