Category Archives: Workplace Injury

Examining the Ethics, Economics of Infections

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What is a person’s responsibility toward keeping fellow humans safe and healthy? How much of that responsibility falls onto an employer when it means sick people working because they don’t have sick leave, exposing coworkers and customers? And how much of that is personal responsibility that means a worker won’t get paid for taking a sick day that they didn’t have or even risk losing that job because they’re sick?

We have lots of questions with not as many answers as we would like, but having a conversation is a start towards figuring out the solutions.

Originally, this blog post was going to include discussion with Ebola as the jumping point, and this article, The Ethics of Infection from The New York Times, offered so many good points and ways to consider where individual rights versus the greater good of society should intersect.

Unfortunately, for at least 81 people with whooping cough (pertussis) in Lancaster County, where Lincoln, Neb., is located, this discussion is now more than just an academic exercise, with very concrete life ramifications. A recent Lincoln Journal Star article had a lot of interesting details. “Whooping cough cases in Lancaster County are nearing an all-time high, and that number is expected to keep climbing for the foreseeable future, according to the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department.”

There has also got to be an economic effect, as loved ones must be taking care of many of these sick people and missing work, even if they’re not sick themselves. “According to health records, 65 percent of confirmed cases in Lancaster County have been kids ages 6 to 19.” And whooping cough is “extremely contagious, especially in the first few weeks.” Here’s what the article said about the span of time needed to stop the spread of the infection to others. Dr. Phil Boucher of Lincoln Pediatric Group and Tim Timmons, communicable disease specialist with the health department were quoted:

“People receiving antibiotics should stay home from school, work or day care for the full five-day course of treatment, Boucher said.

Those not receiving antibiotic treatment should stay home for three weeks after the onset of violent coughing, Timmons said.”

So whoever is taking care of those with whooping cough (or is sick themselves with pertussis) is looking at between five and 15 sick days. And if the caregiver then gets sick, random interactions, such as those highlighted in the article in the Times, can mean exposures for people who have no sick days. Then for workers with no sick days, and often no health insurance, the best of many really bad decisions has to be made. A previous blog post addressed the challenge of no sick days, in reference to the flu, but it can easily be adapted to the whooping cough situation above.

When it comes to offering solutions to the very real issues that arise with infections, we continue to urge employers to realize the value of paying sick employees to stay home and not expose others, regardless of the contagion. In addition, though it is a pretty controversial conversation, getting vaccines for infections often lessens the severity of the sickness, when it doesn’t outright prevent the sickness, in a person. Herd immunity also protects those who, for various reasons like allergies to vaccine ingredients, cannot be vaccinated themselves.

Finally, experts quoted in The New York Times article urge people to consider the greater good for society, a theme that shows up in many contexts time and again in the firm’s blog posts. Because citizens of the United States are focused on how tough they are as individuals and how they will just “get over” a sickness, many don’t realize that attitude is a luxury for many people for many reasons – some that are more obvious than others. Because a sick person doesn’t necessarily know, and sometimes doesn’t seem to care, about a worker’s immune-compromised family member and what exposure could mean in the long run.

Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor of law at Georgetown University who specializes in public health law and human rights closes the NYT article by talking about how far there is to go.

“America has gotten so focused on rugged individualism and the autonomy of the person that we forget we have wider ethical responsibilities to our families and communities and our country,” said Professor Gostin, who bows rather than shaking hands when he is sick and sends home ill students attending his classes. “This me-first mentality is what I think promotes irresponsibility when it comes to public health.”

Let’s hope all those with whooping cough get better as the infection runs its course and that all humans can have a safer and healthier holiday season and 2015.

Take the Time for Ag Safety This Holiday Season

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I hope you and yours were able to have a nice Thanksgiving break. Many people aren’t afforded that luxury because of work or other circumstances, so thoughts go out to them during the holidays. Due to an incident that recently happened on a local turkey farm near Waverly, the loved ones of Mr. Joaquin Danilo Mina Munoz are grieving his death. Sympathies are definitely extended to his loved ones.

Although original reports of being “sucked into grain while working with a running auger” were incorrect, Mr. Munoz did apparently die “when his clothing got tangled on the auger blade shaft” of a grain truck, according to the tragic story.

That incident got me to thinking about safety in agriculture. Now that the corn and soybean harvests are done, some folks breathe a big sigh of relief, but they shouldn’t be lax when it comes to safety.

Unfortunately, farming is one of the most dangerous jobs on the planet. And, as firm partner Todd Bennett wrote in a previous blog post, workers’ compensation is complicated in Nebraska when it comes to ag and farming operations. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) only covers a part of the nation’s grain-handling facilities, according to a recent in-depth story in the Lincoln Journal Star. That is why safety in grain handling and in agriculture in general is so important.

In addition, OSHA recently cited Double Dutch Dairy in Shelby, Neb., for four serious violations and proposed fines of $22,500 for an incident on June 17 where a worker was “fatally injured by a front-end loader,” according to the news release in the link. The Wisconsin-based dairy was cited “after an inspection found that the driver’s view was obstructed,” when the driver struck the worker.

Now that the busy harvest season is done and the busy-in-a-different-way holiday season is upon us, I urge all workers, but especially those in agriculture, to review their safety practices and take care so all can have the luxury of spending a little bit of time with their loved ones over the upcoming holidays.

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.

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.”

[Click here to see the rest of this post]

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!

The Right to a Safe Workplace

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Workplace SafetyUnder federal law, every employee has the right to a safe workplace. If you believe your workplace is dangerous and changes in safety policy are ignored, you can request an inspection from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

Workers’ compensation, which is regulated on a state-by-state level, covers medical bills, lost wages, disability and vocational rehabilitation services for employees injured on the job. If you have any questions regarding these benefits, please contact an experienced lawyer in your area.

If you believe you work in an unsafe work area, here are some tips to be aware of to make sure your workplace is as safe as possible, and you protect yourself from significant injury:

  1.  Know the hazards in your workplace.
  2. While in a seated position, keep your shoulders in line with your hips. Use good form when lifting.
  3. Injuries occur when workers get tired. Take breaks when you’re tired.
  4. Do not skip safety procedures just because it makes the job easier or quicker. Using dangerous machinery is the one of the leading causes of work injuries.
  5. Be aware of where emergency shutoff switches are located.
  6. Report unsafe work areas.
  7. Wear proper safety equipment.

If you are injured due to an unsafe workplace, and you are unsure of the benefits that you are entitled to, contact an experienced attorney in your area.

“Opting Out” of Worker’s Compensation Hurts Workers and Employers (Part 2)

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Today’s post comes from guest author Tom Domer, from The Domer Law Firm in Wisconsin. It is a follow-up to a post last week. There is a disturbing trend among states to essentially gut workers’ compensation systems and laws by being “business friendly” and then calling that practice variations of “alternative worker’s compensation programs.” I always thought businesses were more profitable and successful when their employees worked in a safe environment and were taken care of if they happened to get injured on the job. And the reality is that in the race for a bigger profit, the injured workers pay in human capital. The wisely written “cautionary note to employers” below is the workers’ consolation prize, apparently.

Last week we explained Wisconsin’s rich history of protecting injured workers through its mandatory workers’ compensation system. This week we’ll look at what is happening in Texas and Oklahoma, where it is not mandatory for employers.

Alternative worker’s compensation programs( like that of Texas’—and now Oklahoma— non-subscriber / “Opt Out” scheme) have the potential to significantly reduce workplace safety. Since experience rating is a fundamental component of worker’s compensation insurance systems, the comp system provides economic incentives to employers through reduced insurance costs to companies with reduced injury rates and safe workplaces.  Texas’ “opt out” option  means that an employer can choose to be self insured or become a non-subscriber and opt out of worker’s compensation insurance entirely. Those employers opting out of worker’s compensation systems are not experience rated and there is no economic incentive to reduce workplace injuries and ensure safe work environments for their employees.

Most recently on April 17, 2013 a fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, killing 15 and injuring approximately 200 people. EMS workers, firefighters, and other first responders were among the casualties.  The West Fertilizer Company was approved to have no more than 400 pounds of ammonium nitrate in the plant, but instead, 270 tons were reported to be on site. West Fertilizer failed to inform the Department of Homeland Security of the amount of fertilizer it had. Texas had as well the worst recorded industrial accident in America in 1947 when 3,200 tons of ammonium nitrate resulted in almost 600 deaths and 3,500 injuries.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation.

Texas has the worst work-related fatality rate in the nation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 433 reported fatalities occurred in 2011 alone in Texas with the highest (4.79 per 100,000 workers) for the last ten years. (Oklahoma is in line to follow).

Oklahoma’s worker’s compensation measure was signed into law May 5 and it drastically changes how Oklahomans are compensated for on the job injuries. Republican Governor Mary Fallin has tried to change the worker’s compensation system for over 20 years in State politics.  She indicated the bill would reduce costs for businesses. The law changes worker’s compensation system from a judicial to an administrative one, allowing businesses to opt out of the worker’s compensation systems as long as they provide “equivalent” benefits to injured workers. Opponents of the law indicate that it is unfair to injured workers because it will reduce their benefits. The implementation of “equivalent” benefits, and what kind of injuries are covered or uncovered by those who “opt out” of the system is yet to be determined.

Cautionary note to employers: since those employers that “opt out” of worker’s compensation are no longer allowed the benefit of the exclusive remedy provision of worker’s compensation, workers who are not covered by worker’s compensation can sue their employers. For example, in a recent Colorado case where an undocumented worker (who by Statute in Colorado was not covered under worker’s compensation) received over a $1 million verdict against the negligent employer.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_industrial_disasters

Worker’s compensation systems benefit both employers and workers, and the dangers of opting out of the system means a retreat to harsh industrial conditions, producing  the same kind of inequities  that workers’ comp remedied over a century ago. The situation calls to mind the maxim that those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it.