Author Archives: Rod Rehm

After the International Nutrition Building Collapse: OSHA Releases Report

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The International Nutrition building.

I was going to write about a summary from the official OSHA news release and provide a compilation of web resources regarding the Jan. 20 International Nutrition building collapse in Omaha. This is relevant now because the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) quite recently found the cause of the collapse after an investigation and levied proposed fines for the tragedy that killed two, injured nine, and doubtlessly affected all the other workers at the plant and all those folks’ loved ones in the greater community.

“OSHA has proposed penalties of $120,560 and placed the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program after its investigation into the collapse,” according to the official news release from OSHA.

The building’s collapse was because of “overloading nine storage bins on the building’s roof level,” the news release said, and the company was also placed on OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

Here is one link that was more of what I was expecting from the OSHA news release:

Business Insurance website: OSHA cites Omaha feed company for fatal plant collapse 

However, the business did respond via statement to at least three local media channels, and links to those stories are below. The level of denial by the business was frustrating, and I think the Omaha World-Herald newspaper nailed the tone of the story with its headline: “International Nutrition disputes OSHA’s conclusions that overloaded rooftop bins caused collapse.”

So not only does “the company strongly disagree with OSHA’s report,” it is “saying the citations are only allegations and that company officials didn’t know of any condition that contributed to the collapse,” said the reporter for KETVOmaha7 (this quote is attributed to International Nutrition’s attorney, Pat Barrett in the World-Herald article).

The business’ statement also included this quote from the WOWT.com story: “We look forward to presenting the facts demonstrating our commitment to employee safety – both before and after the accident. … At the same time, we welcome the opportunity to work with OSHA to continue to improve employee safety.”

I thought this was telling about the company’s “commitment to employee safety” from the WOWT.com article:

“In total, OSHA has visited the facility 13 times dating back to 1974. Eight of those visits led to violations; however, it had not landed on the Severe VEP program until now. OSHA officials told WOWT 6 News that usually occurs when companies rack up violations of $100,000 or more.”

To get more in-depth information, here are links to both the company’s statement at http://www.omaha.com/international-nutrition-s-july-statement/article_0997a878-10fc-11e4-8481-0017a43b2370.html and OSHA’s Citation and Notification of Penalty report at https://www.osha.gov/ooc/citations/International_Nutrition_955579_Jul18_2014.pdf  

Finally, here’s a link to the actual news release again from OSHA: January structural collapse leading to 2 worker fatalities, 9 injuries at International Nutrition in Omaha caused by overloaded storage bins; OSHA cites company for 13 safety and health violations

“The company manufactures a feed supplement using multiple dry ingredients, rice hulls, solulac and limestone – the ingredients that were stored in the nine bins on the roof of the structure,” according to the KETVOmaha7 report.

The reality when it comes to workers’ compensation and lawsuits is nuanced, but the incident is stark in its details, and this information is from multiple news sources.

In 30 seconds, “close to 1 million pounds of steel, concrete, equipment and ingredients crashing through the plant” occurred, according to the World-Herald.

That 30 seconds and its aftermath is an experience that will take months and years for many to recover from. It is an experience that no worker or their loved ones should have to endure.

OSHA Chief: Inequality in America Is About Workplace Hazards, Too

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from www.nbcnews.com

W hy should I care? Why should anyone care? And where do we go from here – what is needed most for safe workplaces?

The article linked to below is an incredibly insightful interview from the head of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, known far and wide as OSHA. Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels answers quite a few of these questions with frank messages that all should consider, whether you’re a worker or love someone who works. Because, to review, OSHA is limited only to holding businesses accountable for safety violations, and once those violations are fixed, proposed fines are almost always adjusted down.

As is often seen at law firms like ours, what happens once a worker is injured greatly affects that worker and their loved ones financially and emotionally, in both the short-term and long-term. That’s one of the many reasons this blog features so many posts advocating for worker safety, and the firm’s efforts include articles on other social media outlets that highlight when OSHA is holding businesses accountable for safety lapses. Though workers are affected badly by unsafe conditions throughout the spectrum of wages, this issue affects low-wage workers more, and almost always, there’s less of a financial cushion for workers who make less money in the first place.

“There’s a clear correlation between low wage jobs and unsafe jobs….Workers in low wage jobs are at much greater risk of conditions that will make it impossible for them to live in a healthy way, to earn money for their family, to build middle class lives,” Michaels said.

I would continue to argue that when businesses and insurance doesn’t step up to do the right thing after someone is hurt, regardless of regulatory requirements lagging behind, then society as a whole is also affected by the cost of supporting injured workers and, often, their loved ones. As Michaels mentioned, employers should make workplaces even safer than OSHA’s minimum requirements and focus on prevention, which can also result in cost savings. But if a worker does happen to get hurt, the employer should make the choice to help the worker recover, and ultimately, if at all possible, get back to meaningful work. In the long run, this benefits the worker, their loved ones, employers and society the most. And as Michaels said about injury prevention, “There’s a lot of evidence that companies that manage safety well are more productive and outperform their competitors.”

So workers, and especially businesses, should care enough to take care.

Image: Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC.
Image: Assistant Labor Secretary David Michaels of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration attends a full committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 23 in Washington, DC.

Inequality and poverty have taken center stage in American politics in the years since the recession. Fast food workers have raised the profile of low-wage work, cities and states around the country are raising the minimum wage, and elected officials in both parties have made the struggles of poor Americans core political issues.

But David Michaels, Ph.D., M.P.H., who leads the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Obama administration, says that workplace inequality is more than just wages. In an interview, Michaels, who is responsible for enforcing federal laws to project workers from illness and injury, says the regulatory structures he oversees aren’t sufficient to protect vulnerable workers from harm.

NBC: The political conversation about inequality in recent years has focused on wages. You’ve made the point that when addressing inequality, we should focus more on workplace health and safety issues. Why?

Michaels: Wages are clearly a core component of the discussion of inequality and the ability to get into and stay in middle class. But workplace health and safety issues also have an enormous impact. Workplace injury and illness can push workers out of middle-class jobs and make it hard to enter into the middle class in the first place.

Studies show that workplace injury…

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Sugar Plant Removed Safety Device 13 Days before Temp Worker’s Death

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from www.propublica.org

ProPublica is running an extremely informative investigative series on the trials and safety risks of being a temporary worker. This post is another story in that series. It is both brutal and thought-provoking. Sympathies go out to all the families whose lives are changed as their loved ones who are just trying to work for a living die in unsafe work environments.

There are a whole lot of people without any job security at all. “The temporary staffing business has been one of the fastest growing industries since the end of the 2007-09 recession. It now employs a record 2.9 million people in the United States,” according to the ProPublica article.

In this particular warehouse in Pennsylvania, every employee, including the warehouse manager, was a temp worker! The warehouse manager told OSHA that he had “complained repeatedly to upper management about the dangers of becoming engulfed while unclogging the sugar hopper,” according to the article, including requesting “a safety device to prevent clogging.”

But after that screen was installed, it was removed by the plant manager, as it was “slowing down production.” Less than two weeks after that, temp worker Janio Salinas, 50, was “buried alive in sugar.”

Even though CSC Sugar had been inspected and fined before, the original fine for this incident of $25,855 was reduced to $18,098 after the plant made safety adjustments, according to the article.

Although Mr. Salinas’ family thought OSHA should have done more, “Jean Kulp, director of OSHA’s Allentown, Pa., office, told Univision that her agency doesn’t have the ability to shut down businesses and has limited criminal enforcement provisions.”

If you or a loved one are hurt at work, please contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney to discuss your options. As was written in previous blog posts, in Nebraska and Iowa, most but not all, temporary employees are covered by workers’ compensation. A better solution continues to be a safer job environment and stronger training programs for all workers.

This story was done in collaboration with Univision.

Inside the sugar plant in Fairless Hills, Pa., nobody could find Janio Salinas, a 50-year-old temp worker from just over the New Jersey border.

Throughout the morning, Salinas and a handful of other workers had been bagging mounds of sugar for a company that supplies the makers of Snapple drinks and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. But sugar clumps kept clogging the massive hopper, forcing the workers to climb inside with shovels to help the granules flow out the funnel-like hole at the bottom.

Coming back from lunch that day in February 2013, one employee said he had seen Salinas digging in the sugar. But when he looked back, Salinas was gone. All that remained was a shovel buried up to its handle. Then, peering through a small gap in the bottom of the hopper, someone noticed what appeared to blue jeans.

It was Salinas. He had been buried alive in sugar.

As harrowing as the accident was, federal safety investigators recently discovered something perhaps even more disturbing: A safety device that would have prevented Salinas’ death had been removed just 13 days before the accident because a manager believed it was slowing down production.

After a series of gruesome accidents involving untrained temp workers, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has stepped up its enforcement of rules affecting temp workers. In recent cases, OSHA has held companies and temp agencies jointly responsible for training, and it…

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OSHA Enforcement Cases Involving Temps On the Rise

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Today’s post was shared by Gelman on Workplace Injuries and comes from ohsonline.com

I am so glad to see that temporary workers are being included more in OSHA enforcement. It is just frustrating that it took an injury to a worker in New Jersey for one of the companies in the article below to be inspected through “a referral from the Maplewood Fire Department,” according to the article.

Our firm’s blog has included articles focused on temporary workers and their special challenges when it comes to workers’ compensation in 2012 and earlier this year.

The short article below that is today’s focus came from a business and industry publication, so I think it serves to put its readers on notice for OSHA’s renewed focus “on the safety of temporary workers.”

Generally speaking (with exceptions for some agricultural jobs), temporary workers qualify for workers’ compensation, though that coverage does not replace wages from your main job if the temporary job is a second job. Workers’ compensation laws and systems vary by state, so if you or a loved one is injured on the job, please speak with an experienced workers’ compensation attorney about your specific situation.

Today’s post shared from OshOnLine.com illustrates a new enforcement effort by OSHA that will improve the work environment for all Americans.OSHA’s emphasis on the safety of temporary workers is being driven home by a series of enforcement actions. The latest case announcement on June 19 involved the Macon, Ga., facility of a company named California Cereal Products Inc., which OSHA has cited for exposing full-time and temporary workers to electrical, fall, and noise hazards, with proposed penalties totaling $40,600. OSHA opened an inspection last December based on a complaint.

“The employer has failed to protect full-time and temporary workers from easily identified workplace hazards that can result in death or permanent disability,” said Bill Fulcher, director of OSHA’s Atlanta-East Area Office.

The case against beverage bottling company Maplewood Beverage Packers LLC and temporary employment agency Corporate Resource Services Corp. in Elizabeth, N.J., also began with a December 2013 investigation, but it started with a referral from the Maplewood Fire Department after a temporary worker was injured falling from a ladder. OSHA has proposed $182,270 in penalties. “Host employers and staffing agencies are jointly responsible for ensuring worker safety and health,” said Kris Hoffman, director of OSHA’s Parsippany Area Office. “Employers must protect all workers from job hazards-both permanent and temporary workers.”

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OSHA Cites Nebraska Food Supplement Plant for 10 Violations

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vitamin-food-supplementsWorker safety is essential, and one way to help ensure worker safety is through inspections by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Records of these inspections are often very important documents in workers’ compensation cases after a worker has been injured on the job.

In its first OSHA inspection ever, a Geneva, Nebraska, food supplement plant was cited for 10 safety and health violations and also earned a spot in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, according to a recent news release. The proposed fine was $101,200.

“Bioiberica Nebraska is a subsidiary of Bioiberica S.A. based in Barcelona, Spain. The company, which produces products for the pharmaceutical, food supplement and functional foods industries, employs 322 workers worldwide and 11 at the Geneva site.”

I appreciate OSHA holding this manufacturer accountable, especially with some of the problems that came to light with the inspection. The willful violations alone netted the company $84,000 in fines, according to the citations list.

“The three willful violations were cited for exposing workers to injuries, such as electrocution, burns, crushing, lacerating, amputating or fracturing body parts,” according to the OSHA news release. “These violations included failure to develop written procedures, provide training, and implement a program with locks, tags or other hardware to prevent machines from starting up while employees performed service and maintenance of machinery. A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health.”

I am particularly troubled by one of the serious violations that was mentioned in the citations list. “Employees had not been provided training to recognize, evaluate and control exposure to hazardous chemicals. Hazardous chemicals used in the facility include, but are not limited to, diatomaceous earth containing up to 44% crystalline silica,” according to the listed citation.

I have written about the silica standard and referenced it in regard to its use in Nebraska and Iowa as a raw material, but its use in manufacturing processes and other industrial uses can also definitely be dangerous, especially with workers having no information or training about such hazardous chemicals. The OSHA news release regarding Bioiberica Nebraska’s inspection bears out this concern.

“Silica exposure can cause silicosis, an irreversible lung disease, and other health hazards,” according to the news release.

Although OSHA fines are often decreased once a company is in compliance and shows proper documentation, I hope that this company will be more diligent in providing a safe workplace immediately. Being put in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program means this employer and its workers can look forward to more OSHA inspections in the future.

Nebraska, however, is one of the states that definitely needs more labor inspectors, according to the recent AFL-CIO’s annual report on job fatalities, which was written about in a previous blog post. With one labor inspector for 102,255 employees (for a total of nine statewide), 92 more inspectors in the state would meet the International Labor Office benchmark for labor inspectors, which “is one inspector per 10,000 workers in industrial market economies.” Nebraska also has the dubious distinction of being one of seven states where “the ratio of inspectors to employees is greater than 1 per 100,000 workers,” according to the AFL-CIO report. The other states are Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas and West Virginia.

So although Bioiberica Nebraska should be inspected again soon, the idea of “soon” is relative and limited by the number of inspectors available in our state. Let’s hope that efforts for safety are successful at this plant before workers’ lives are affected through death or injury.

Workers’ Comp Covers Heat Injuries

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The Great Plains is nearing the calendar start of summer. Please be aware of the heat and what its effects can be on workers, on children and the elderly, and on pets. No one is safe in a closed-up car, for example.

Prolonged exposure to excessive heat and humidity can result in injuries and diseases covered by the workers’ compensation laws. Workers with heat exhaustion, strokes, heart attacks and skin conditions may be entitled to lost-time benefits, medical expenses and permanent disability benefits if the condition is serious.

It also appears that extreme weather is going to continue into this summer season, with some damage already to homes, crops and property. When storms do come, be sure it’s someone’s job to keep the crew safe from sudden weather, regardless of the industry. Enjoy the summer, and contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney if there are questions about a specific incident that occurred at work.

It has been a roller coaster of a May here on the Great Plains. Nebraska and Iowa have both been hit with weather extremes. For example, “Two days after Lincoln recorded a record low temperature and less than two weeks after the city saw significant snow, thermometers soared Tuesday.” And I saw on Facebook via Radio Iowa News, that “Sioux City reports 106 on Tuesday afternoon, beating the old record of 97, set in 2001.” Because the Journal Star says this is the earliest Lincoln’s ever hit 100 degrees (a new record), I will go out on a limb to say that we’re done with freezes for a while, which makes me think about the next season: summer and heat.

Did you know that heat issues can be covered by workers’ compensation? But prevention is preferred, so here are some links with lots of resources for those who work outside, no matter the weather, and also for those who play, garden, golf, exercise, and enjoy the outdoors. In addition, just like one’s body adjust somewhat to cold, the body also adjusts to heat, so a person who spends the summer in the air conditioning will have less tolerance for the heat than someone who spends all day outdoors. In addition, pay attention to prescription medicines, as some can cause sunburn or heat problems quicker than a person not taking that medication would experience them. The heat can also affect folks who may not be considered the traditional “outside” worker, as, for example, if one is unloading cargo from a truck to a warehouse in 100 degree heat, it can be much hotter than that in both the truck and warehouse.

One term that is mentioned on a regular basis in the media once the humidity kicks in is the “heat index,” which is defined as followed, according to http://www.weather.com/outlook/health/fitness/tools/heat: “The Heat Index is the temperature the body feels when heat and humidity are combined.” Of course this means that what it feels like isn’t the actual temperature, as it only felt like 95 when it was 100 recently because of a “dry heat.”

  • Welcome to OSHA’s Campaign to Prevent Heat Illness in Outdoor Workers
    There is a lot of information on here, and looking through some of it is a reminder that employers should expect and encourage workers to be safe when it comes to working in the heat. Employers should make an effort to encourage this safety focus by both talking about and acting on recommendations to help employees be safer and more productive.
  • Using the Heat Index: A Guide for Employers
    “Water. Rest. Shade. The work can’t get done without them.” This quote from the website is a very useful safety reminder. It looks like there are lots of opportunities through these links for conversations to occur between workers and employers about taking heat index into account when planning work.
  • NIOSH Workplace Safety and Health Topics: Heat Stress
    This site includes an overview; types of heat stress; recommendations for employers; recommendations for workers; and many other links that share resources and research about being in the heat.
  • Heat Safety Tool
    Although I’m generally easily amused, I am sincerely happy to say that there’s an app for that! Because so many people are connected with mobile technology, I am looking forward to downloading this app on my phone for the summer for personal use.
  • OSHA Quick Card
    Here’s a Quick Card resource from OSHA that folks can print out for reference points. And as neat as mobile apps are, from a practical perspective, paper does make a better fan.

So regardless of why you’re outside, enjoy, take care, and be safe!

Why We’re Still Killing Workers in the USA

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Today’s post comes from guest author Jay Causey, from Causey Law Firm in Seattle. Mr. Causey writes about some important issues in workers’ compensation with a focus on the oilfields of North Dakota. This is especially striking because both Nebraska and Iowa have sandpits that supply the sand used in fracking, so some workers here face the same challenges with silica that workers in North Dakota do. Please go to this previous blog post, Proposed Silica Standard Needs to Be Strengthened, for more information about issues with silica.

I find the AFL-CIO’s report extremely interesting but also frustrating because so many workers are still dying on the job. Members of Rehm, Bennett & Moore will be writing occasional blog posts from the annual report on job fatalities in the coming months. Posts will include a focus on Iowa and/or Nebraska or a big-picture commentary on the state of workers in the nation these days.

I appreciate Mr. Causey’s work in bringing this report to promote both thought and action for increased worker safety. One point that comes to mind is that Mr. Causey writes, “the vast majority of the states with the highest fatality rates contain the 8 million workers in states with no federally approved OSHA safety and health plan.” A contrast between Nebraska and Iowa’s workers’ compensation systems is that Iowa does have a federally-approved state plan and Nebraska does not. Visit https://www.osha.gov/dcsp/osp/stateprogs/iowa.html to get more information about Iowa’s state plan. Please contact a workers’ compensation attorney who is familiar with the laws in your state if you have specific questions.

The AFL–CIO’s annual report on job fatalities is out, and provides some interesting fodder for thought.

It’s no surprise that North Dakota – – with its “wild West” environment for oil and gas extraction on the Bakken Shale was the most dangerous place – – with 17.7 deaths per 100,000 workers versus the national average of 3.4.

Nationally, 4600 workers died on the job in 2012. While that number has fallen since safety laws were implemented in the 1970s, the decline has flat-lined over the most recent decade. It was 4.2 deaths per 100,000 workers in 2006, now still at 3.4 in 2012.

The AFL–CIO report contains maps that reflect part of the reason for the stall-out: the vast majority of the states with the highest fatality rates contain the 8 million workers in states with no federally approved OSHA safety and health plan. The report graphically portrays another salient fact: the number of federal OSHA inspectors per 1 million workers has fallen from a high of 15 in 1980 to 6.9 in 2013.  OSHA has been so underfunded over recent years that it would take an average of 139 years for available OSHA inspectors to visit each workplace in their jurisdiction just once. (In some states that number is even more staggering – – 521 years for South Dakota.)

The AFL-CIO report reflects some other interesting facts concerning the demographics of workplace fatalities – – not surprisingly, being foreign-born or Latino puts a worker at a higher risk of fatality, and homicide was the number one cause of death for women in the workplace in 2012.

But, getting back to the “oil patch” in North Dakota, we see other disturbing trends in the culture of workplace injury that accompany the decreasing application of safety regulation. With job growth tripling in North Dakota’s oil patch since 2007, while workers’ compensation filings are up, many injured workers are encouraged by employers in the extractive industries not to file, with many companies working out sidebar deals with injured workers. Injury rates are being kept artificially low by rewards for not reporting. As the AFL–CIO’s safety chief, Peg Semenario, has said, underreporting warps national safety figures in an industry that is already notoriously opaque.

And the culture of creating false indicators of workplace safety will likely have tremendous implications down the line when the 2000 tons of silica-rich sand used in the cement casing of each fracking well begins to work its way into workers’ lungs. NIOSH reported in 2012 that 92 of 116 air samples at franking sites exceeded the recommended safe levels of silica, which can lead to incurable, irreversible lung disease.

 

 Photo credit: Craig Newsom / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Medical Care Politics in Worker’s Compensation

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Today’s post comes from guest author Thomas Domer, from The Domer Law Firm in Milwaukee. He writes about some perceptions that people have about injured workers and filing a workers’ compensation claim.

Although various blog authors who have been posted this year have put a focus on employer fraud, society through the media has put a big focus on employee fraud. No one lives in a vacuum, and for as many loved ones who support an injured worker’s right to compensation, there are also those folks who don’t understand how the system works or think that injured workers should just keep their heads down, suffering in silence and not going up against their employers.

But the reality is that, as I have said before, it’s better to have a good life than a good case. And if employers always did what they were supposed to in support of workers who were injured at their places of business, then the workers’ compensation process would be a lot less complicated, and injured workers would be helped a lot quicker, possibly with better long-term results.

If you or a loved one is hurt, keep in mind that loyalty to an employer in not making waves may be misplaced – be sure to focus on what’s important in the long term: the health of the injured worker and the well-being of their loved ones.

The mythology surrounding employee fraud in worker’s compensation is pervasive. Many of my clients begin their conversations with me indicating the following: “I’m not one of those folks faking their worker’s compensation claim.”  The exaggerated media publicity concerning employee fraud has also resulted in outright worker intimidation regarding filing a claim. I had this conversation today with a prospective client.

Attorney: Why didn’t you report the incident?
Client: I didn’t want to have that on my record.  Nobody will hire me if I have a worker’s comp injury.
Attorney: Why didn’t you seek medical treatment?
Client: I do not have insurance.
Attorney: Can you obtain insurance under the Affordable Care Act?
Client: You mean Obamacare?  No way!

Fear of being stigmatized as a complainer, whiner, or simply a recipient of worker’s compensation benefits has prompted many legitimately injured workers from filing a worker’s compensation claim.

The adverse publicity concerning the Affordable Care Act (and its pejorative popular name “Obamacare”) results in many otherwise qualified workers from obtaining the health care they need, especially when denied by a worker’s compensation insurance carrier. 

The politics of medical care intrudes in the worker’s compensation arena daily.