Category Archives: Nebraska

Why Your Vote Matters to Workers

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I frequently write about the intersection of workers’ compensation benefits for workers and politics. The bottom line on my comments is that workers, and citizens who care about workers, need to vote for candidates who will protect workers’ rights. These comments arise from a now quarter-century attack on workers’ compensation benefits by big business and insurance interests. Their power is almost incomprehensible in terms of the money they will spend to take away or limit benefits.

Recently, a Florida court found that the limiting of workers’ benefits in Florida has destroyed the “social bargain” that led to the creation of workers’ compensation. Workers’ compensation laws are slightly more than 100 years old. The notion of a bargain is workers got fast and fair benefits in exchange for giving up their right to full compensation. There have been a lot of discussions since the big business/insurance attack on worker benefits that the bargain is no longer fair.

The Florida court also found the exclusive-remedy rule unconstitutional. The exclusive-remedy rule deprives injured workers and their families of benefits for pain, suffering and non-occupational disability. I have also represented a client in Nebraska where the exclusive-remedy rule was limited by a court.

Big business and big insurance will not back down. They won’t let up. As I write this blog, billions of dollars are being poured into political campaigns by the Koch Industries, TD Ameritrade and scores of others to support candidates who want to reduce and eliminate workers’ benefits.

Workers, their families, and everyone else who cares about ordinary human beings must not let these wealthy interests buy elections. We must stand up and vote. We must inform ordinary human citizens that the corporate citizens are taking away our rights as fast as they can. This is a crucial election, and every election will be crucial until people stand up and convince the mega wealthy that they can’t buy elections any longer.

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.

Workers’ Compensation Benefits: Iowa vs. Nebraska Law

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The workers’ compensation benefits under Iowa law for permanent injuries are typically greater than those available under Nebraska law. As such, finding a way to bring a claim under Iowa law can be of primary importance if there is a potential jurisdictional issue between the two states.

Iowa Code 85.71 provides the framework for helping to resolve this issue. Put simply, an injury that occurs inside the borders of Iowa is most likely going to qualify to be brought under Iowa law. However, even injuries that occur outside the borders of Iowa can still be covered under Iowa law in certain common instances as detailed below:

1. The employer has a place of business in Iowa and:
       a. the employee regularly works at or from that location;
       b. the employee lives in the state of Iowa.

2. The employee is working under a contract of hire made in Iowa, and the employee regularly works in Iowa.

3. The employee is working under a contract of hire made in Iowa and sustains an injury for which no remedy is available under the workers’ compensation laws of another state.

4. The employer has a place of business in Iowa, and the employee is working under a contract of hire that provides that the employee’s workers’ compensation claims will be governed by Iowa law. 

An injured employee also needs to be careful about filing in a different state than Iowa. Under Iowa Code 85.72, the Iowa action will be stayed pending the resolution of that claim in another state. This means that the Court cannot take up any issues in Iowa while there is another pending legal action in another state concerning the same date of injury.

The difference in benefits between the two states can amount to tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, there are a number of differences in the laws of the two states that can play a role in how the claim is handled, including the appropriate statute of limitations, which dictates how soon a claim must be filed in Court. As such, it’s important to contact an attorney licensed in Iowa and Nebraska to discuss these differences so we can help you decide which state’s law is better for you and to help you navigate the relative pitfalls in each state.

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.

What’s the Connection Between Worker Safety, Employer Profit, and Voting?

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A recent newspaper article about a Nebraska lawyer fighting against imposing OSHA regulations on small businesses and farms that handle grain illustrates an age-old conflict between Worker (human) safety and Business (corporate) profit. The lawyer argued OSHA compliance is too expensive for small businesses and farms.

I couldn’t disagree more. From my point of view, worker safety is immeasurably more valuable to society than business profit. Human beings are the most important component of any activity, including business. Viewing safety as a cost ignores the cost to the human beings who are burned and maimed by grain explosions, whether they happen at a small business/farm or a huge corporate grain facility.

Farms in Nebraska and Iowa are not required to provide workers’ compensation for their employees. This is justified on the grounds that farms can’t survive such government intervention. I find this an interesting argument from businesses that have long received subsidies from the government. It seems that farm profits are more important than the human beings who do the work to earn those profits.

Our society needs more laws to protect human beings from injury and to compensate them if injured for the profit of others. Candidates for public office need to be asked what matters more to them: Is it human beings or profits that matter more?

Justice Louis Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote long ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”  

If we keep electing representatives who favor the concentrated wealth, then human beings will likely be protected less. These are scary times as the divide between the “haves” and “have nots” continues to grow. Ballots are the only way to tell our representatives that the health and welfare of human beings is paramount. Voting is essential, or we will see more and more concern for profit and less and less concern for human beings.

Elections Matter to Injured Workers

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Nebraska held a primary election last week. Our television, radio and social media networks were flooded with messages from big-business organizations with little or no connection to our state. Millions of dollars poured in from nameless, faceless donors from other states.

Injured workers, their families and people who care about injured workers should be concerned about this.

Big-business groups generally do not support candidates and laws that are good for injured workers. These groups push for limitations in benefits, limitations on health care, and judges with business-favorable histories.

The general election this fall will be important because many state senators who have been great friends and protectors of injured workers are going to be replaced by new senators. Workers need to pay attention to the candidates and learn whether the candidates stand for the working people or the big businesses. 

Vote for the candidates who care more about injured people than business profits.

Remember Workers’ Memorial Day on April 28

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The writers of this blog spend a lot of time encouraging readers to reflect by thinking about the lives of others who are less fortunate, where each individual reader has been, and where they are headed. We often encourage advocates for workers’ rights and safety. This encouragement does sometimes come at the expense of business profits. But keeping workers safe is always the right thing to do.

Observing Workers’ Memorial Day on Monday, April 28, is one way to take the time to reflect, act as an advocate, and help workers and their loved ones. This AFL-CIO fact sheet included the thought-provoking quotation below, along with some specific points that encourage action.

“This year we will come together to call for good jobs in this country for all workers. We will seek stronger safeguards to prevent injuries and save lives. We will stand for the right of all workers to raise job safety concerns without fear of retaliation, and for the freedom to form unions and speak out and bargain for respect and a better future.”

By reflecting on the risks that all workers take and acting to promote safety, we think Workers’ Memorial Day will be even more successful. And most importantly, all of our loved ones will have safer workplaces.

There are many resources to access to find out more about Workers’ Memorial Day events near you. Today’s blog post was written a couple of weeks in advance of the events so people can plan ahead to attend.

Here are some links, along with the specific information for Nebraska and Iowa:

Iowa

Nebraska has three separate events available to the public this year. 

  • USMWF’s 5K Family Fun Run/Walk Fundraiser
    Sunday, April 27, 1:30 p.m., Registration Starts
    Holmes Lake Park, Lincoln
    via http://www.usmwf.org/NE5KRUN.htm to sign up, learn about fees, and get more details about the event
  • Nebraska’s 3rd Annual Safety Expo
    Monday, April 28, 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m.
    IBEW Local 265 Union Hall, 6200 S. 14th St., Lincoln
    Via http://www.usmwf.org/NE5KRUN.htm
    The event is free, but space is limited, and registration is required by printing out or emailing this form http://www.usmwf.org/safety_expo_form.pdf As of April 9, there were still spaces available to attend.
  • 5th Annual Workers’ Memorial Day Candlelight Vigil
    Monday, Apr. 28, 7 p.m.
    Nebraska State Capitol, Lincoln
    via http://www.usmwf.org/NE5KRUN.htm This event is also free, and no registration is needed.
    According to the Lancaster County Democratic Party, via email in 2013, “representatives from State, Federal, United Support Memorial for Workplace Fatalities (USMWF), Unions, Co-workers, Employers and the community come together and honor the men and women that have been injured or killed in a preventable work related incident.”

Please see the websites below for more general details about Workers’ Memorial Day: http://www.workermemorialday.org/WMD2014.htm  

Workers’ Compensation May Cover Weight Loss Treatment, Surgery

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Gastric bypass is one type of weight loss surgery

Obesity is a disease that affects Americans in many ways.

Workers’ compensation is affected by obesity as well. A work injury or disease, coupled with chronic obesity, frequently becomes much more difficult to deal with. The usual methods of treatment may not be possible for an injured worker living with chronic obesity. 

Thomas A. Robinson, a noted expert on workers’ compensation, recently posted a great discussion on obesity treatment. The well-written article discusses how various state workers’ compensation systems deal with these problems. The short answer is some states award benefits for treating obesity as part of the work injury, and some don’t. Nebraska and Iowa have cases denying gastric bypass surgery based on factual findings that it was not necessary to treat the work injury, but leaving to door open with more proof of medical necessity. 

Our firm has had at least one case where gastric bypass surgery was paid voluntarily when it was apparent the surgery was necessary to enable proper treatment of a serious work injury. A workers’ compensation trial award was entered in early January awarding gastric bypass surgery as necessary to reduce weight so a back surgery could be performed safely. This award reinforces that with proof of medical necessity to treat a work injury, weight loss treatment and surgery may be covered by workers’ compensation in Nebraska.