The following is an excerpt from the Workers’ Comp Hub newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter and find out more at workerscomphub.org.
Under the direction of the Trump administration the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is trying to cut off critical access to workers’ comp for clean-up workersat Hanford, Washington, a former manufacturing site for radioactive materials that is now the country’s most dangerous Superfund site. The DOJ has taken steps to overturn a state law that protects Hanford clean-up workers by creating a presumption that certain respiratory diseases and cancers are caused by toxic exposure on the job. Without this legal measure, it is extremely difficult for workers to prove their illnesses are work-related because the Department of Energy refuses to release information about the chemical and radiological hazards to which they are exposed. What’s more, ill Hanford workers filing workers’ comp claims have faced systematic denials, intimidation, invasive surveillance, and humiliating assaults on their dignity from the workers’ comp benefits manager hired by the Department of Energy.
Civilians employed by the U.S. Department of Defense in Afghanistan and Iraq have been exposed to the same toxic hazards as the military personnel alongside whom they work, but face far stricter workers’ comp rules — making it virtually impossible to prove work-relatedness for occupational illnesses.
Hundreds of laborers poisoned by coal ash during clean-up of a Tennessee power plant won a lawsuit against Jacobs Engineering, the firm that was supposed to keep them safe. Jacobs lied to workers about the dangers of coal ash, refused to provide protective gear, and retaliated against workers who spoke up about safety concerns.
Ill worker activists are speaking up about the health impacts of peracetic acid, a toxic chemical used in the poultry industry to treat factory-farmed chicken and turkey for bacteria.
Black Lung and the Failure to Protect Miners
Silica is an even more dangerous contributor to the black lung epidemic than coal dust, say health experts. But despite almost a century of awareness that silica dust poses a severe occupational health hazard, federal regulators have failed to set safe exposure limits for the substance within the mining industry.
Amidst the climbing rates of black lung disease, many miners are forced into an impossible choice between their health and their livelihood. To make matters worse, workers risk losing their job or other retaliation even for undergoing diagnostic health evaluations that may lead to a workers’ compor disability claim.
For more on the rise of black lung and the government’s failure to protect miners, watch this investigative report from Frontline and NPR.
Two Kentucky lawmakers are attempting to restore access to workers’ comp for coal miners suffering from black lung. The state passed a new workers’ comp law earlier this year that limits which types of doctors can diagnose black lung, thereby making it harder for ill workers to get compensation as rates for the disease spike across Appalachia.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf signed into law a bill that subjects injured workersto insurance-ordered medical exams that can limit long-term benefits for those who have been severely disabled by workplace injuries. The law reinstates, with minor changes, a provision struck down last year by the state’s Supreme Court, which ruled that such follow-up examinations unconstitutionally give power over taxpayer-funded benefits to a private group.
Congressional Democrats have introduced the Restoring Justice for Workers Act, which would ban companies from forcing employees into arbitration over workplace complaints. More than half of employees in the U.S. are subject to mandatory arbitration clauses in their terms of employment, meaning that they cannot bring a claim to court if their employer violates their legal rights. Forced arbitration notoriously favors employers, making it nearly impossible for workersto hold them accountable for serious workplace offenses like sexual harassment, wage theft, discrimination, and retaliation. Women, and particularly women of color, are among those most impacted by mandatory arbitration, which has prevented many who spoke out in the #MeToo movement from bringing their employers to court for their complicity in sexual harassment cases.
Also announced in Congress this fall is a proposed federal bill of rights for domestic workers, legislation that would for the first time extend basic labor laws to domestic workers at the national level, ensuring essential protections for a predominantly female and largely immigrant workforce that is often subjected to harassment, discrimination, abuse, wage theft, and other mistreatment at the hands of their employers. The result of years of persistent advocacy by the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the bill includes the right to form unions, to OSHA protections, to overtime pay, and to recourse against discrimination and harassment.
Finally, a lawsuit by Public Citizen and two healthcare advocacy groups challenging OSHA’s rollback of its workplace injury reporting rule can move forward after a federal judge ruled that the rule’s suspension exceeds “enforcement discretion” and is therefore open to court review.