As spring turns to summer, we reflect on Workers’ Memorial Week actions and reports from around the country, evaluate problems with retaliation and chemical safety, review a string of pro- and anti-worker legislation, and look at the dangers facing temporary workers. In case you missed it, the Workers’ Comp Hub blog features new pieces by U.C. Berkeley researcher Glenn Shor reflecting on the legacy of Crystal Eastman and the need for research and documentation on how worker fatalities affect families, and a Workers’ Memorial Week reflection by NESRI’s Ben Palmquist on the rights of these families.
– Jim Ellenberger
Workers Memorial Week 2014: Highlights of events from coast to coast
Around the world the last week of April, people came together to observe Workers’ Memorial Week with vigils, ceremonies, marches, meals, and music. Tales of loss and remembrance echoed from community to community—along with a renewed dedication to action.
“We are losing a Steelworker every 10 days, and that is unacceptable,” United Steelworkers Vice President Tom Conway told members gathering in Pittsburgh. At a senior center in South Bend, Indiana, Mary Ellsworth remembered her son Mark, who died trimming trees on the Notre Dame campus. “He was only 22, but he was my baby. I miss him so much.” In Cheyenne, Wyoming, 35 bells rang out in the State Capitol – one for each person who died on the job in Wyoming in 2012. In Chaska, Minnesota, workers lay 34 orange hard hats in a line to honor the Minnesota Department of Transportation employees who have died in work zones. In Los Angeles, members of the Southern California Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (SoCalCOSH) paid homage to the memory of workers like Cesar Valenzuela, who died in February on a service road at LAX airport. Valenzuela’s death is one of seven workplace fatalities profiled in the “Preventable Deaths 2014” report released by National COSH. Participants in Workers’ Memorial Week events did more than just mourn the dead; in union halls and public squares, activists spread the message that workplace fatalities are preventable, and that more must be done to avoid future tragedies.
Retaliation for reporting injuries on the rise
In the last few months, the Department of Labor (DOL) has pursued several high-profile cases of employer retaliation against workers for reporting workplace injuries, including cases against AT&T and Union Pacific Railroad. Despite the DOL’s lawsuits, employer retaliation remains a growing problem for more and more workers who are injured on the job and pursue workers’ comp.
“We owe it to all workers to provide effective recourse against retaliation for those who have the courage to address wrongdoing or unsafe conditions to protect themselves and the public at large,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor David Michaels in testimony to a Senate Subcommittee on April 29.
The public agencies tasked with monitoring workplaces and enforcing workers’ rights are shamefully underfunded and understaffed. As a result, enforcement relies heavily on a worker’s ability to file complaints and pursue lawsuits. To avoid attention, regulation, and higher workers’ comp insurance premiums, many employers are exploiting workers’ precarious position in the economy by threatening them into staying silent about wage theft, workplace hazards, injuries, and illnesses. While workers in most states are protected from retaliation for filing workers’ comp claims, the scope of legal protection is often narrow and the remedy (such as repayment of back wages) is virtually inaccessible.
Chemical safety and occupational diseases
A string of high-profile disasters in recent years has called awareness to the dangers of poor chemical regulation, and yet very little has changed. From the 2010 Tesoro and Deepwater Horizon oil explosions to last year’s West, Texas, fertilizer plant blast and the recent West Virginia chemical leak, major industrial disasters have been in the news. Less visible but no less devastating are smaller chemical explosions and exposures that hurt or kill one or two workers at a time, and the silent killers: the long, slow release of toxic chemicals that sicken workers and nearby residents with cancer and other diseases. According to OSHA, workers “suffer more than 190,000 illnesses and 50,000 deaths annually related to chemical exposures. Photo: Earl Dotter
Every occupational chemical disaster should trigger two things: immediate action to halt and fix the dangers that led to the disaster plus medical care and income supports for any workers, family members, and nearby residents whose health is impacted or who are partially or fully disabled and lose some or all of their income. Instead, workers and neighbors are left unprotected, government agencies are ill equipped to respond, and companies and industries make few if any changes to prevent further disasters.
|Take Action! On May 1, workers at a car parts factory in Selma, Alabama, were exposed to toxic chemical TDI. Sign an online petition calling on Renosol, Lear, and Hyundai to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation, report the findings to workers, and pay for all workers to receive health screenings.
Legislative attack on Illinois workers: Bills were introduced in both the Illinois House and Senate that would make it harder for injured and ill workers to get needed medical treatment, wage replacement, and other services. Both bills failed. This is the latest in a national trend in which states are attempting to raise the burden on workers to prove their injuries and illnesses are caused by work. The House bill sought to exclude workers with pre-existing conditions who could not prove aggravation of the condition at work was the primary cause of disability, and would deny claims outright for illnesses for which there is no one known cause. The Senate bill limited access to workers’ comp for workers with pre-existing conditions, denied claims for diseases with unknown causes, and added new, arbitrary restrictions on access to income supports for workers disabled on the job. Before the bills were introduced, State representatives and the Illinois Chamber of Commerce admitted that the objective was to cut the cost of insurance premiums for employers, quite literally putting profit motives before workers’ wellbeing.
Some WV, NJ, CA workers may win the benefit of the doubt: In an attempt to unroll the high barrier of proof that it passed into law in 2003, the West Virginia legislature entertained bills that would have required a more liberal weighing of the evidence in favor of injured workers. The bills failed to pass. Several states have created presumptions for certain groups of workers, shifting the burden of proof onto insurers to demonstrate that a workers’ claim that an injury or illness is not related to work. In the past few months, new bills introduced presumptions in workers’ comp for New Jersey’s first responders and California’s peace officers.
Employer insurance fraud: While a bill passed in Florida seems to have made it easier for employers to remedy state “stop orders” for the non-payment of workers’ comp, bills in California and Virginia increase fines on employers who do not provide coverage. Another bill in California would also prioritize the workers’ comp claims of employees of illegally uninsured employers.
Oklahoma opt out goes into effect: In February, Oklahoma joined Texas as the second state in the nation to allow employers to opt out of workers’ comp insurance, thereby leaving their employees uncovered. Oklahoma employers can now create their own private plans for handling workplace injuries, exercising greater control over workers’ access to medical treatment and income supports. Ohio is contemplating becoming the next state to allow workers’ comp out outs.
Texas House evaluates workers’ comp opt outs, misclassification: The Texas House Speaker recently directed the House Committee on Business and Industry to study “the voluntary nature of workers’ compensation in Texas and how it meets the needs of employers and employees.” The Texas Department of Insurance says that more than half a million workers in the state are covered neither by a workers’ comp insurance plan nor an employers’ private coverage scheme. The Workers Defense Project has been working with unions and other allies to raise awareness that employers’ cost savings come at the expense of injured workers and their families, responsible “high-road” employers, and the public. The Committee also held a hearing on the fraudulent misclassification of construction employees as independent contractors, in which the AFL-CIO and a high-road construction contractor, among others, testified about the need to end misclassification and to make workers’ comp mandatory for the construction industry.
Arizona insurers seek immunity for bad faith: Even as insurance companies win more and more power to deny workers’ claims, a failed Arizona bill would have banned lawsuits against insurance companies for acting in bad faith. The bill would have given insurers free reign to bring costly and complex challenges against workers’ legitimate claims, and showed little regard for workers’ human rights and dignity.
Federal workers’ replacement wages under threat: A U.S. Senate bill would arbitrarily cut workers’ comp payments to workers across the federal government. The bill won bipartisan support in February in the Senate Committee on Insurance and Retirement with no public hearing. The National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and other labor organizations are pushing back.
Delaware fights over fee schedules: Doctors in Delaware are fighting business and insurance lobbies over whether to reduce the fees paid to doctors and hospitals through workers’ comp, leaving workers on the sidelines of a political battle over profits.
Colorado may expand choice of physicians: Colorado enacted a law that allows injured workers to see four doctors rather than the two they are allowed to see now. The State AFL-CIO, which is pushing the bill, won support for the measure from business by eliminating other provisions.
Reporters call attention to temp workers’ safety: The trend in the economy toward contingent employment robs workers of wages, benefits, and job security and puts many, especially the nation’s 2.9 million temp workers, in dangerous situations without adequate training. ProPublica has published a superb series of investigative articles on temp workers, highlighting how the shift to temp labor, exploitation of vulnerable workers, and inadequate legal standards have led to high injury rates among temp workers. Vice News has turned the articles into a set of five short video documentaries.
OSHA takes steps to protect temp workers: Advocates like MassCOSH have been advocating and organizing for temp workers’ rights for years (and won a Temporary Workers Right to Know law in Massachusetts in 2012), and OSHA has finally started paying attention. In April 2013 the agency announced a new Temporary Worker Initiative focused on the health and safety of temp workers. In response to confusion over whether staffing agencies or host employers are responsible for temp worker safety and training, OSHA has made clear that both parties share an obligation to keep workers safe, and has released a bulletin outlining recordkeeping requirements for injuries and illnesses. In March, OSHA fined frozen food manufacturer Schwan’s Global Supply Chain, Inc. for 32 serious health and safety violations that put both temp workers and full employees at risk, and fined temp staffing agency Adecco for 12 serious violations. In April it fined manufacturer Dixie Tank Co. for 23 violations of employees’ and temp workers’ safety.
NFL continues to fight players over workers’ comp: We’ve previously reported on the NFL’s workers’ comp battle in California and its attempts to deny that football can cause traumatic brain injury. Now the owners of the New Orleans Saints are pushing a bill that the NFL Players Association says “is specifically designed to take away benefits from injured players and put money in the pockets of management,” a move that has drawn media attention for threatening to derail the NFL’s plan to expand the playoffs. Saints quarterback Drew Brees told the press, “I can tell you one thing, one thing that’s non-negotiable is workers compensation and player health and safety.”
Texas insurers unilaterally downgrade injuries to cut off workers’ comp: Insurers are acting unilaterally in Texas to downgrade workers’ injuries years after they occur because, according to Brad McClellan, former chief of the workers’ compensation section of the attorney general’s office, they keep winning both at the state agency that oversees administrative disputes and in a court system that tends to rule in their favor once the legal brawling starts.
North Dakota state doctors blows a whistle: North Dakota is the deadliest state to work in, and has shown a “callous disregard” for workers’ lives. Earlier this spring the top medical doctor in the state’s workers’ compensation agency complained that the agency’s legal staff routinely disregard his medical opinions about workers’ cases. He now reports directly to agency’s chief.
Good news for miners: The Department of Labor has announced steps to improve coal miners’ access to workers’ compensation.
New York COSH Annual Awards Celebration: Celebrating 35 Years!
June 12, New York, NY
NYCOSH will mark its 35th Anniversary by celebrating honorees Michael Mulgrew, Bhairavi Desai, Jim Morris, Joel Shufro, Kimberly Flynn and Robert Spencer.
New Jersey Work Environment Council Annual Awards Dinner
June 13, New Brunswick, NJ
WEC hosts its annual awards dinner, honoring Peg Seminario, Patricia Bauman, Thomas Hardy, Adam Liebtag, President, and Marien Casillas Pabellon.
WorkSafe Anniversary Celebration
June 27, Oakland, CA
WorkSafe will honor Dr. Julia Quint and the Communications Workers of America, District 9, and announce the establishment of the Frances Schreiberg Pro Bono Award.
New York Workers’ Compensation Centennial Conference
July 15, Albany, NY
The New York State Workers’ Compensation Board is hosting a conference with the International Workers’ Compensation Foundation.
OSHA meeting on emergency response and preparedness
July 30, Washington, DC
OSHA invites stakeholders to an informal meeting on emergency response and preparedness to inform a proposed standard.
Petition for Alabama workers exposed to toxic TDI
Sign an online petition calling on Renosol, Lear, and Hyundai to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of a May 1 chemical leak, report the findings to workers, and pay for all workers to receive health screenings.
Petition for immigrant workers in New York
Sign a petition calling on New York State to rein in predatory employment agencies targeting low-wage immigrant workers.
Clinician sign-on letter for migrant farmworkers
The Migrant Clinicians Network is asking clinicians to sign on to a letter to protect farmworkers from pesticides.
Workers’ Memorial Week reports
National COSH, local COSH groups in New York, Massachusetts, Wyoming, California, Texas, and Tennessee, and the AFL-CIO released Workers’ Memorial Week reports documenting the human toll of work-related fatalities and highlighting ways future tragedies can be prevented.
Revised 2012 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries
The Bureau of Labor Statistics released updated and revised fatality data for 2012, putting the official tally of workplace fatalities that year at 4,628.Family Bill of Rights
Legislative trends in workers’ comp
Agricultural injuries and illnesses going unreported
U.C. Davis’ J. Paul Leigh finds that the federal agencies responsible for tracking workplace hazards are failing to report 77 percent of injuries and illnesses affecting U.S. farmworkers.
Employer fraud in NY workers’ comp system
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office released a Grand Jury report and set of policy recommendations to rein in employers who fraudulently skimp on workers’ compensation insurance.
Injury and illness prevention in NY workers’ comp system
More than 134 million in U.S. live in hazardous chemical danger zones
A report from Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform finds that 134 million people live in danger zones around 3,433 industrial facilities.
Workers exposed to solvents have long-term cognitive impacts
Poultry worker injuries
In response to a South Carolina poultry processing plant’s request to increase line speeds, NIOSH conducted an evaluation of musculoskeletal disorders and tramautic injuries among poultry processing workers at the plant.
Workers’ Comp Research Institute’s Annual Report and Research Review
Final report on 2010 Tesoro refinery fire
The Chemical Safety Board released its final report on the April 2, 2010, Tesoro refinery fire in Anacortes, Wash.
Audit of the Mine Safety and Health Administration
A new audit of MSHA concludes that the agency “has taken steps to detect and deter underreporting of accidents and occupational injuries and illnesses, but more action is still needed.”
Center for Construction Research and Training YouTube Channel
CPWR has launched a YouTube channel with videos that look at real worker fatalities and how such events could be prevented.
OSHA injury and illness recordkeeping requirements for temporary workers OSHA has released a three-page bulletin summarizing temp agencies’ and host employers’ injury and illness recordkeeping requirements for temporary workers.