Category Archives: Government

UN Announces Treaty to Restrict Use of Mercury

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Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon L Gelman LLC, in New Jersey. As was recently discovered with the drinking-water tragedy in West Virginia, dangerous chemicals and heavy metals can cause long-term health consequences. The uninformed use of many of these substances can also cause long-term problems for workers. As I wrote in Monday’s blog post, as medical research advances, scientists are discovering more correlations and causes of occupational diseases, which also end up applying to workers’ compensation. It is heartening to see the UN take this step to protect both consumers and workers, as unintentional mercury exposure can be an immediate and long-term health risk.

Over 140 governments meeting at a United Nations forum in Geneva have agreed to a global, legally-binding treaty to address mercury, a notorious heavy metal with significant health and environmental effects.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury – named after a city in Japan where serious health damage occurred as a result of mercury pollution in the mid-20th Century – provides controls and reductions across a range of products, processes and industries where mercury is used, released or emitted.

These range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors, according to a news release issued recently by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), which convened the negotiations.

“After complex and often all-night sessions here in Geneva, nations have recently laid the foundations for a global response to a pollutant whose notoriety has been recognized for well over a century,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Everyone in the world stands to benefit from the decisions taken this week in Geneva, in particular the workers and families of small-scale gold miners, the peoples of the Arctic and this generation of mothers and babies and the generations to come. I look forward to swift ratification of the Minamata Convention so that it comes into force as soon as possible,” he added.

The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury.

Pinpointing populations at risk, boosting medical care and better training of health care professionals in identifying and treating mercury-related effects will also form part of the new agreement.

UNEP noted that mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts, including brain and neurological damage especially among the young. Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.

Among the provisions of the treaty, governments have agreed on a range of mercury-containing products whose production, export and import will be banned by 2020. These include batteries, except for ‘button cell’ batteries used in implantable medical devices; switches and relays; certain types of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs); mercury in cold cathode fluorescent lamps and external electrode fluorescent lamps; and soaps and cosmetics.

Certain kinds of non-electronic medical devices such as thermometers and blood pressure devices are also included for phase-out by 2020.

Governments also approved exceptions for some large measuring devices where currently there are no mercury-free alternatives. In addition, vaccines where mercury is used as a preservative have been excluded from the treaty as have products used in religious or traditional activities.

 

Small Increase Predicted for Social Security COLA

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Social Security benefits are slated to go up, but not by much. “The cost-of-living adjustment in Social Security for 2014 is likely to be very small, marking the fourth year in the last five that recipients receive little or no increase in benefits,” according to a recent CNNMoney article

The American Institute for Economic Research estimates the increase to be 1.4% to 1.6%.  Last year’s increase was 1.7%, and the 2012 increase of 3.6% was the only “significant rise in benefits in recent years,” according to the article.

If there are questions about your specific legal situation, please contact the firm.

Shutdown Hurts Groups that Help Injured Workers

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I can imagine few feelings worse than being hurt on the job, being unable to work and not getting benefits, and/or not being able to seek treatment. I get calls from my clients in that predicament frequently, and it is probably the worst part of my job. 

But the shutdown has made this situation even worse for injured workers with denied claims. The shutdown has endangered funding to community action programs that can help injured workers at least get short-term help with rent, housing utilities and food.  

Please call your senator and representative and tell them to come to their senses and end this shutdown. Also, please consider donating to your local community action program, which you can find by doing an internet search.

OSHA Reaches Employer Agreement to Stop Discouraging Employee Accident Reports

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Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon Gelman, LLC – Attorney at Law in New Jersey. This article struck me as timely because firm associate Jon Rehm recently tweeted the following link via his personal account @JonRehmEsq “Exclusive: Judge blasts Union Pacific, awards injured worker $310K http://shar.es/yzgrr via @sharethis”. The Nebraska Watchdog article involved a whistleblower who was an injured worker and covered by OSHA’s Whistleblower Protection Program, mentioned below in the blog. After being fired for reporting his injury, according to the link above, worker Brian Petersen was awarded $310,000 from Union Pacific and also got his job back. Although Mr. Gelman’s post is about BNSF, the OSHA Whistleblower Protection Program applies to UP and also trucking companies, among other industries, according to the blog.

Statistics regarding the reporting of accidents have historically been challenged for accuracy as employees have been fearful about reporting events, and employers have been reluctant for numerous reasons, including the potential of increased insurance costs. Now OSHA has taken a significant step to legitimize the process by seeking an employer accord not to take adverse actions against employees for reporting injuries in the workplace.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has signed an accord with BNSF Railway Co., headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, announcing BNSF’s voluntary revision of several personnel policies that OSHA alleged violated the whistleblower provisions of the Federal Railroad Safety Act and dissuaded workers from reporting on-the-job injuries. FRSA’s Section 20109 protects railroad workers from retaliation for, among other acts, reporting suspected violations of federal laws and regulations related to railroad safety and security, hazardous safety or security conditions, and on-the-job injuries.

“Protecting America’s railroad workers who report on-the-job injuries from retaliation is an essential element in OSHA’s mission. This accord makes significant progress toward ensuring that BNSF employees who report injuries do not suffer any adverse consequences for doing so,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Dr. David Michaels. “It also sets the tone for other railroad employers throughout the U.S. to take steps to ensure that their workers are not harassed, intimidated or terminated, in whole or part, for reporting workplace injuries.”

The major terms of the accord include:

  • Changing BNSF’s disciplinary policy so that injuries no longer play a role in determining the length of an employee’s probation following a record suspension for a serious rule violation. As of Aug. 31, 2012, BNSF has reduced the probations of 136 employees who were serving longer probations because they had been injured on-the-job.
  • Eliminating a policy that Continue reading

The Problems with States Refusing Medicaid Expansion

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Medicaid expansion was a large part of the recent health care reform law under the Affordable Care Act. For reasons that seem to be solely based on politics, some state governors have made public their decision to reject the Medicaid expansion, and as a result, federal funding of the expansion.

Besides the obvious problems this rejection would cause for millions of uninsured Americans and the health care providers who treat these uninsured people, this rejection could have a negative effect on workers, especially injured workers, of these states.

Fellow workers’ compensation lawyer, friend and colleague Tom Domer of Wisconsin discussed the possible ramifications when an injured worker does not have access to health insurance. Mr. Domer discussed the following scenario that we see day in, and day out, in a previous blog post:

“The personal toll on the uninsured is devastating, especially for those dealing with work injuries.

As a worker’s compensation attorney, the following scenario plays out on a daily basis: A hard-working individual—who is lucky enough to have health insurance through the employer—is injured at work through no fault of his own. The injury is severe enough to not allow a return to work, or the employer simply terminates the employee (this insidious action happens far too often with far too little publicity). After termination, the injured worker is offered federal COBRA rights to continue paying the health insurance premiums at the full 100%, which of course, is near impossible when you are off work without income. Thus, the worker loses health insurance for himself and for his family.

On the flip side, the worker’s compensation insurance company is supposed to pay for reasonable medical treatment expenses related to the injury; however, the carrier usually hires an “independent” medical doctor to deny the worker’s compensation claim. The injured worker is then left out in the cold with an injury that requires medical treatment, but he has no ability to get that medical treatment without health insurance or workers’ compensation coverage. The worker then calls me and asks the emotionally-laden question: ‘What do I do?’”

Nebraska is one of the states that is “Leaning Toward Not Participating” in the Medicaid expansion, at least according to Gov. Dave Heineman’s public statements on the topic.

This can have a devastating effect on Nebraska workers who have suffered an injury.

As Mr. Domer further states:

“Access to health insurance alters this equation. If the worker had adequate access to health insurance, especially Medicaid, he could obtain the medical care that could allow a return to work, regardless of whether the worker’s compensation insurer accepted or denied the claim. Whether work-related or not, injured individuals should have the opportunity to get healthy in our country.”

So what can be done about this problem? Contact your government officials to encourage them to provide injured workers increased access by expanding Medicaid.

Let OSHA Do Its Job

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OSHA is being prevented from fulfilling its mission.

Today’s blog post was written by guest author Paul McAndrew, Jr., of the Paul McAndrew Law Firm in Coralville, Iowa. It focuses on some of the unfortunate ways that the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has been limited by politicians over the years. He argues, and this law firm agrees, that OSHA needs to protect workers by fulfilling the mission that’s found on its website at www.osha.gov/about.html “to assure safe and healthful working conditions for working men and women by setting and enforcing standards and by providing training, outreach, education and assistance.”

In 1970, Congress passed the Occupational Safety & Health Act (the Act), which created the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA). Among other things, the Act requires every employer to provide a safe workplace. To help employers reach this goal, OSHA promulgated hundreds of rules in the decade after it was created. OSHA’s rulemaking process has, however, slowed to a trickle since then.

While the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health recently identified over 600 toxic chemicals to which workers are exposed, in the last 16 years OSHA has added only two toxic chemicals to its list of regulated chemicals. This is because Congress, Presidents and the courts have hamstrung OSHA. For example, in March 2001 the Bush Administration and a Republican Congress effectively abolished OSHA’s ergonomics rule, a rule the agency had worked on for many years.

These delays and inactions have caused more than 100,000 avoidable workplace injuries and illnesses.

These delays and inactions have caused more than 100,000 avoidable workplace injuries and illnesses. Workers are being injured and killed by known hazardous circumstances and OSHA can’t act.

Congress and the President need to break this logjam – we need to free OSHA to do its job of safeguarding workers.

Workers’ Compensation Bills Scheduled for Monday Hearings

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The Nebraska Legislature

In this, the 100th year of workers’ compensation in Nebraska, I write a lot while the Legislature’s in session about how we advocate for workers. Now it’s time for Nebraskans to get involved in the lawmaking process to protect workers’ rights.

Two bills, LB 307 and LB 584, are scheduled for hearings in the Business and Labor Committee at 1:30 p.m. on Monday, Mar. 18, in the Nebraska Legislature’s Room 2102. These bills could gut the protections workers get through the workers’ compensation system in Nebraska, including taking the choice of doctor away from workers. The bills would also take many decisions out of the realm of the doctor-patient relationship, local control, and even the state’s control, and hand those decisions to workers’ employers, insurance interests, and private companies that are focused more on making money than ensuring workers’ health and safety. A bill similar to LB 584 promoting evidence-based medicine fortunately did not get out of committee last year.

To educate folks more on some of the bills before the Legislature that affect workers and also see the perspectives the firm has to advocate for workers, please read these blog posts:

Help lawmakers hear your voice by getting involved and being vigilant! Call, email, or write your senator to share your personal story and how these bills affect real people. These links may be useful for contacting senators: Find Your Senator, Senators’ Web Pages, Senator Roster, and Business and Labor Committee. Members of the Business and Labor Committee include Sen. Steve Lathrop (District 12), Chairperson, Sen. Brad Ashford (District 20), Sen. Ernie Chambers (District 11), Sen. Thomas Hansen (District 42), Sen. Burke Harr (District 8), Sen. Amanda McGill (District 26), and Sen. Norman Wallman (District 30).

Because citizens’ involvement and interest in workers’ protections matter. Hearing from workers affects how our senators vote. So don’t take programs like workers’ compensation for granted – stand up, get involved, and be heard!

Workers’ Compensation – Safety Net for the Middle Class – Under Constant Attack

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LB 307 would take away the most basic foundation of workers’ compensation

Workers’ compensation law is one of the oldest and most basic protections working middle-class families are given by law. A current article by a pair of Washington state representatives points out this obvious but frequently overlooked truth.

Reps. Bob Hasegawa and Mike Sells point out: “Unless you’re self-employed, you’re probably covered by our state’s workers’ compensation program. It affects pretty much anyone who brings home a paycheck.”

They remind us that all jobs are covered and necessarily so because injury and disease comes about from virtually all kinds of employment: “the ranks of injured employees include everyday office employees: the guy whose back goes out after lifting too many boxes of copy paper; the secretary who can no longer click a computer mouse because of a repetitive-stress injury; or the delivery guy who shatters a hip slipping on a patch of ice. We’re talking about software designers, pizza twirlers, supermarket cashiers.”

Nebraska and Iowa, where our firm practices have solid well established laws (for more than a century) that protect the middle-class workers and their families. The Washington state representatives describe their situation this way: “Our proven, century-old workers’ comp system protects all of these employees and their families from economic ruin in the event of a severe or long-term injury. That’s the good news.”

The never-ending bad news is that this fundamental middle-class protection is under constant assault in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Each year various business and insurance interests present bills to state legislatures asking to limit benefits, gain more control over healthcare for the injured, limit healthcare for the injured, and generally weaken protections for middle-class workers and their families.

In Nebraska, I am working with the Nebraska Association of Trial Attorneys (NATA) and other pro-consumer groups to resist the latest round of attacks on the middle class. One of the bills, LB 307, is supported by a deceptively named organization, Nebraskans for Workers’ Compensation Equity and Fairness. This bill would take away the most basic foundation of workers’ compensation laws, the requirement that these laws be interpreted liberally to protect our middle-class workers. The bill also strips workers of physician choice and allows insurance/employers to terminate benefits if you don’t go to company doctors.

Another bill, LB584, provides for treatment guidelines established by a private company in California and enforced by utilization reviews by other private businesses, including consulting doctors from all over the United States and perhaps the world. Having Nebraska physicians second-guessed by someone from another state or country seems far from fair and hardly protective of physicians or workers’ rights.