For the first time ever, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recently sanctioned a Pilgrim’s Pride chicken processing plant for providing improper medical treatment for employees suffering from overuse injuries. While the hazards of meatpacking work to employees is common knowledge and the packing industry is frequently sanctioned for unsafe work practices, the sanction against Pilgrim’s Pride for failing to provide medical care to their workers in Florida indicates OSHA is opening a new front in the battle for a safe workplace.
While OSHA’s sanctioning Pilgrim’s Pride for providing inadequate medical care to their injured workers is novel, their action is consistent with law that states access to prompt and appropriate medical care is crucial to pursuing a workers’ compensation claim. OSHA sanctioned Pilgrim’s Pride for failure to make timely and proper referrals to specialists for orthopedic injuries when employees sought treatment at company first-aid or nursing stations. According to OSHA, delays in treatment can lead to permanent injuries.
The fact that OSHA deems inadequate medical care to be a violation of its regulations could also mean that employees have a statutorily protected right to oppose inadequate medical care. In Nebraska, this would mean that employees could possibly sue their employers under the Nebraska Fair Employment Practices Act. Celeste Monforton, a professor of public health at George Washington University, noted in her post that employers use company health clinics not only to delay treatment but to discourage employees from seeking medical care. Some employers go so far as to discipline employees who do not get permission from their employer to seek outside medical treatment. A recent case in an Illinois federal court stated such policies were illegal.
While Nebraska does not have any case law similar to Illinois about such policies, there is a strong argument to make that such policies would be illegal under Nebraska law and under the law of any state that prohibits retaliation against employees for filing workers’ compensation claims. Policies that require notification and permission to seek medical treatment from employers could also run afoul of Nebraska’s laws allowing employees to choose their own doctors. One Nebraska court has hinted that the right to pick a doctor is a legally protected activity.
Monforton also pointed out that Pilgrim’s Pride could be committing medical malpractice by failing to provide proper care and having nurses treat injured employees without proper medical supervision.
However, packinghouses have some reason to believe that they are immune from medical malpractice suits filed by their employees against their employee health nurses. The legal shorthand for this is called the exclusive remedy. In practice, this means that an employer who provides medical treatment in a negligent manner to an employee who is treating for a work injury can only be sued in workers’ compensation court.
Of course, there are some ways around the exclusive remedy for medical care. The first exception would be that if employee health was outsourced. This would allow an employee to sue that provider directly and could also allow for a civil conspiracy or civil RICO claim.
There may also be other exceptions as well. For example, Nebraska has a Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights that states that workers employed at covered meatpacking houses have a right to a safe workplace and the right to seek benefits, including workers’ compensation. If an employer does not provide adequate medical care or provides negligent medical care, that could certainly violate the public policy behind the Meatpacking Industry Workers Bill of Rights and warrant a tort case against the packinghouses under the public policy of the state of Nebraska.