Category Archives: Government

Struck-by Vehicle Incidents: OSHA’s Regional Emphasis Program for Region 7

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The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Labor, has announced via news release that it’s continuing its Regional Emphasis Program in Region 7 for struck-by vehicle incidents.

As was mentioned in a recent blog post, Region 7 includes the states of Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri.

Here is some additional information from the news release:

Over fiscal years 2008 through March 2013, “15 percent of all workplace fatalities investigated by the Kansas City Office … have involved vehicle accidents that struck employees in the workplace,” and there were 37 vehicle-related fatal incidents. The operator was the victim 43 percent of the time, while 57 percent of the time, the vehicle struck another worker. In addition, “seventy percent of the fatal incidents occurred at general industry work sites, while 24 percent happened in construction.”

Vehicles involved include “conventional vehicles, forklifts, semi-trucks and other moving industrial equipment” like cranes and yard trucks and cover the “construction, general and maritime industries.”

OSHA does inspections to follow up on complaints and referrals they get about the vehicles, and the news release also included a link that addresses struck-by hazards, which can be found here.

OSHA’s Region 7 Busy in September

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The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration is frequently referred to as OSHA.

OSHA’s Region 7 covers Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Missouri, although Iowa operates its “own OSHA-approved job safety and health programs and cover state and local government workers as well as private sector workers.” In addition, the approved program “must have standards that are identical to, or at least as effective as, the federal OSHA standards,” according to an OSHA web page. The region has had a busy month releasing the results of investigations and resulting fines, so I thought it would be interesting to make this blog post a roundup of the results, which were gleaned from OSHA news releases, found at the web page for Region 7.

Although the proposed fines unfortunately do not reflect the severity of some of the injuries, OSHA’s job is not to punish businesses for injured workers, but for unsafe working conditions. That also means that fines are often decreased or eliminated when the hazard in the workplace is fixed. However, OSHA investigating a business based on an accident can often help an injured person’s workers’ compensation case.

  1. Date and location: Sept. 2, McCool Junction, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $84,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: one repeat, two serious to Farmers’ Cooperative at its McCool Junction fertilizer plant

    Details: A 73-year-old worker died from injuries after falling while loading a tanker truck on May 7, according to OSHA’s news release. Citations were related to lack of fall protection, lack of guard rails, and not providing railing on stairways.

  2. Date and location: Sept. 2, Kansas City, Mo.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $12,000: $2,000 compensatory and $10,000 punitive

    Law violated: Federal Railroad Safety Act by Farmers’ Cooperative

    Details: A railroad conductor at the Murray Yard complex was disciplined in retaliation after a doctor’s appointment in November 2013 where the doctor told him to stay out of work for the rest of the day because of a personal illness, according to OSHA’s news release. Although the worker notified a supervisor about the doctor’s treatment plan, “the company then accused the employee of violating its attendance policy and subsequently disciplined the employee.” In addition to paying damages, the company must “remove disciplinary information from the employee’s personnel record and provide whistleblower rights information to its employees.”

  3. Date and location: Sept. 22, Omaha, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $133,900

    Number of citations for safety violations: three repeat and three serious, including confined space safety regulations, to Watco Companies of Pittsburg, Kan., a business that specializes in rail car repairs and has 30 employees in Omaha

    Details: A worker “reported suffering from respiratory inflammation after performing welding work inside a rail car in Omaha,” according to OSHA’s news release. An investigation in March was launched after the Nebraska Department of Labor Workers’ Compensation Division notified OSHA via a report of the illness. Repeat violations were “for failure to implement training, procedures and practices for safe entry into these spaces, including the company’s failure to evaluate for hazards, and to provide workers with communication devices or implement measures to prevent unauthorized entry.” Previous citations that made these repeat happened in Texas in 2013. “Serious violations were cited for failure to provide administrative and engineering controls to reduce damaging noise exposure, electrical hazards and lack of atmospheric controls in confined spaces.”

  4. Date and location: Sept. 25, Holdrege, Neb.

    Proposed fine: $14,000

    Number of citations for safety violations: two serious: “for failing to train workers in the recognition of unsafe conditions and to teach them how to access emergency medical services from a job site,” according to OSHA’s news release. The company is Van Kirk Sand and Gravel, operating as Van Kirk Brothers Contracting, which is based in Sutton, Neb.

    Details: One worker died and one worker was hurt after getting hit “by an excavator bucket while installing stormwater drainage in a trench … in Holdrege on July 17.” The inspection by OSHA “found that one of the employees sustained puncture wounds from the bucket after it disconnected from the excavator and rolled into the trench from a height of about 4 feet.” That worker died, and the other worker “suffered contusions and abrasions in the incident and has since returned to work.”

  5. Date and location: Sept. 25, Wichita, Kan.

    Damages paid to whistleblower: $261,787 for back wages and damages; and also reinstatement to their job and removing references to the disciplinary action from the employee’s record

    Law violated: Surface Transportation Assistance Act by Stericycle Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., which specializes in biohazard waste disposal

    Details: “An investigation found the company wrongfully terminated a transportation supervisor at its Wichita terminal because the worker raised safety concerns after a driver was instructed to pull a trailer without a valid license plate,” according to the OSHA news release. When the employee was fired in September 2012, it was because of his status as a whistleblower. “It was determined that his protected activity was a contributing factor in the company’s decision to terminate his employment on Sept. 14, 2012, in direct violation of STAA.”

In addition to investigating unsafe working conditions, OSHA also works with nonprofits, businesses and industries to promote safety and accident prevention, which is what the remainder of the news releases in September are about.

  • On Sept. 3, OSHA announced that it is forming an alliance with the Heartland Workers Center of Omaha. This effort will “provide HWC staff, immigrant workers and others with education, guidance and access to training resources on protecting the health and safety of workers,” according to the OSHA news release. This includes promoting workers’ rights, how to make an OSHA complaint, what employers’ responsibilities are under the Occupational Safety and Health Act, and providing Spanish-language safety and health training.
  • On Sept. 16, OSHA announced that it will work with Holder Construction Group to keep workers safe during the building of a data center called the Oasis project in Omaha, “which will include a chiller plant, administrative areas and supporting mechanical, electrical and plumbing rooms,” according to OSHA’s news release. The estimated 180 tradesmen who will construct the building, along with their employers, will learn “about hazards construction workers face daily on the job, including fall, electrical, caught-in and struck-by hazards.” In addition to other details, “all contractors and subcontractors on the project will be required to have specific written safety and health programs in place and attend meetings before major work takes place.”
  • Finally, on Sept. 25, OSHA announced in a news release that it was National Farm Safety and Health Week Sept. 21-27. Although the way workers’ compensation is handled when it comes to agriculture varies from state to state, ag is a dangerous industry. The news release includes both statistics and resources with many links for ag workers and their loved ones and also employers. The 2014 theme was “Safety Counts: Protecting What Matters,” according to the OSHA news release. “With a fatality rate of 22.2 for every 100,000 full-time workers, agriculture recorded the highest fatality rate of any industry sector,” in 2013. Issues include “awareness of confined space, farm equipment, grain handling … work-related lung diseases, heat exposure, noise-induced hearing loss, struck-by and fall hazards, skin diseases and certain cancers associated with chemical use and prolonged sun exposure.”

While it would be great if OSHA didn’t have to exist because workplaces were safe for employees, it is helpful to see both proactive steps taken to make workplaces safe and also businesses being held accountable when workers are injured because businesses or job sites are unsafe in Region 7.

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.