In South Charleston, West Virginia, nine employees from an IHOP restaurant had to be taken to the hospital after inhaling a cloud of hazardous chemicals. The cloud was formed when one employee added the wrong type of chemical to a dishwasher used to clean restaurant hardware.
Two chemicals, a degreaser and a chlorine-based cleaner, were mixed together to create the hazardous cloud. The cloud soon filled the air, smelling strongly of bleach. It was large enough that restaurant diners were able to see it and knew that something was amiss. Restaurant workers then called 911 and evacuated diners to the outside parking lot. When emergency first responders arrived, they set up a staging area in a specific location where the wind was blowing the other way, so the cloud would not reach them.
The offending degreaser is known as Delimer, which contains phosphoric acid. The safety sheet accompanying Delimer warns against mixing it with “chlorinated detergents,” or the result could be toxic fumes. Under federal law, employers are supposed to provide employees with safety sheets for any toxic substances used in the course of employment, as well as training on how to safely handle the materials. That may not have taken place at IHOP, given that employees allegedly used Delimer with chlorine bleach repeatedly.
It is more common than one would think for people in homes and businesses to mix bleach with other cleaning products. They do so in order to produce a chemical that cleans easier. But the result is a chlorine gas that, at the least, can irritate the eyes and affect breathing. At worst, in stronger doses, it can cause death from asphyxia or pulmonary edema, especially for people with previous respiratory ailments. Fortunately, although nine IHOP employees were taken to the hospital for treatment, none were seriously harmed. Emergency workers cautioned, though, that other symptoms could manifest later.
We at the Wolfe Law Firm have represented many employees who have suffered injuries while on the job. Most employers are required to carry workers compensation insurance; therefore, if an employee gets injured at work, he or she can collect a fixed amount of payments in place of wages until the employee is able to work again. This is true regardless of whether the employee’s conduct was at fault. The main exception to this rule is if the employee was injured as a result of being intoxicated or on drugs. If an employer carries workers compensation, however, the employee cannot elect to file a lawsuit instead. The employee has no choice but to take the workers compensation payments.
On the other hand, a third party — such as a restaurant customer — could hire a West Viriginia personal injury attorney and sue both the employer and employee for any injuries suffered from the toxic cloud incident. The restaurant customer could claim that the employee was negligent for not properly following safety instructions for the two chemicals. The employer could be held vicariously liable through a theory known as respondeat superior. Under this theory, employers are held liable if the employee was acting within the scope of employment when the accident occurred. A customer might also be able to sue an employer in its own right if it could be shown that the employer violated federal law by not providing employees with safety training.