New Directions in Liability Law

By Walter Olson | Go to book overview

Compensating Workplace Toxic Torts

W. KIP VISCUSI

In recent years the focus of concern over workplace safety has shifted from the familiar problem of occupational injuries to the relatively unfamiliar problem of occupational disease. As science has found new links between toxic exposures on the job and illnesses that can crop up many years later, there has been a major wave of litigation; suits over deadly asbestos exposure have already bankrupted the leading producer of that mineral, the Manville Corporation. The lawsuits filed by Vietnam veterans against makers of the herbicide Agent Orange have brought the issue to an even wider public.

This essay analyzes why the current approaches to the occupational-disease problem are not working well and proposes a new response that might both provide fair compensation and promote efficient health-risk levels. Three key principles emerge from the analysis. First, proposals to compensate disease victims should be coordinated with direct regulation of workplace risk, because both influence employer decisions that affect worker health. Second, compensation plans should provide similar levels of income support to similarly situated victims. Third, policy initiatives should clearly distinguish between diseases that have already been contracted and those that will materialize in the future.


The Occupational-Disease Problem

Occupational disease is a problem of staggering proportions for both workers and industry. Approximately 162,000 occupational illnesses are documented annually by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This figure probably understates the prevalence of occupational disease, however, since other Department of Labor statistics

____________________
This essay is an outgrowth of a report on toxic tort compensation policies prepared by the author for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The late Michael Mazur was the contract officer at OMB. Thomas Hopkins, Thomas Lenard, John Morrall, and Frederick Siskind provided helpful comments. Portions of the essay are drawn, with permission, from W. Kip Viscusi, "Structuring an Effective Occupational Disease Policy: Victim Compensation and Risk Regulation," Yale Journal on Regulation 2:1, 1984.

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