Category Archives: Workplace Safety

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

Today’s post comes from guest author Rod Rehm, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

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.

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Hazards exist in the surface refinishing business

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon L Gelman LLC.

University of Iowa, College of Public health, recently reported the death of a bathtub refinishing technician who died from the inhalation of paint stripper vapors.

The apartment manager and first responders reported a strong chemical odor in the second story apartment.

In 2012, a 37-year-old female technician employed by a surface-refinishing business died from inhalation exposure to methylene chloride and methanol vapors while she used a chemical stripper to prep the surface of a bathtub for refinishing. The technician was working alone without respiratory protection or ventilation controls in a small bathroom of a rental apartment. When the technician did not pick up her children at the end of the day, her parents contacted her employer, who then called the apartment complex manager after determining the victim’s personal vehicle was still at the refinishing company’s parking lot. The apartment complex manager went to the apartment unit where the employee had been working and called 911 upon finding the employee unresponsive, slumped over the bathtub. City Fire Department responders arrived within 4 minutes of the 911 call. The apartment manager and first responders reported a strong chemical odor in the second story apartment. There was an uncapped gallon can of Continue reading

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Workplace Violence and Sandy Hook Elementary School

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

In light of the horrific elementary school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut last week it may be time to re-evaluate workplace violence, which seems to be increasing at an alarming rate. Technically, workplace violence is any act where an employee is abused, threatened, intimidated, or assaulted in the workplace. It can include threats, harassment, and verbal abuse, as well as physical attacks by someone with an assault rifle. 

Two million American workers are victims of workplace violence every year. What’s worse is that workplace violence is one of the leading causes of job-related deaths in the United States. Last year, for example, one in every five fatal work injuries was attributed not to accidents but to workplace violence,  and  some employees are at an increased risk for harm. For example, employees who work with the public or who handle money are more at risk (i.e. bank tellers, pizza delivery drivers, or social workers). According to the 2011 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, robbers were found to be the assailants in almost a third of homicide/workplace violence cases involving men, whereas female workers were more likely to be attacked by a relative (i.e. former spouse or partner) while at work.  

Preventing workplace violence is a challenging task and OSHA advises employers to create a Workplace Violence Prevention Program. Creating a safe perimeter for employees is crucial. Likewise, having an emergency protocol in place should reduce the number of fatalities in an attack, and that’s exactly what happened at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut when the school’s protocol saved the lives of many children.

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Holding Individuals Accountable For Workplace Safety Violations

Today’s post comes from guest author Leila A. Early from The Jernigan Law Firm.

British Petroleum (BP) supervisors Donald J. Vidrine and Robert Kaluza were indicted on manslaughter charges in the deaths of 11 fellow workers in connection with the 2009 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. David Rainey, a BP deepwater explorer, was charged with obstruction of Congress and lying about the size of the spill. These indictments were in addition to a record $4.5 billion in criminal fines that BP agreed to pay for the disaster, which will be paid out over 5 years.

Mr. Vidrine and Mr. Kaluza were negligent in their supervision of key safety tests performed on the drilling rig, and they failed to phone engineers on shore to alert them of problems in the drilling operation. These charges carry maximum penalties of 10 years in prison on each “seaman’s manslaughter” count, 8 years in prison on each involuntary manslaughter count and a year in prison on a Clean Water Act count. Mr. Rainey obstructed Congressional inquiries and made false statements by underestimating the flow rate to 5,000 barrels a day even as millions were gushing into the Gulf. He faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.

By charging individuals, the government was signaling a return to the practice of prosecuting officers and managers, and not just their companies, in industrial accidents where reckless and wanton conduct is involved. The practice of charging individuals was more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s but has recently been a rare occurrence, with company fines being the only penalty sought. Some wonder if the $4.5 billion criminal settlement is enough to penalize a corporation after 11 people were killed, and that if a culture of  disregard for safety exits in a corporation that is “too big to fail” then the only way to stop that culture is to send those who knew about it to jail. We shall see.

 

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Bullying Not Limited to Workplace or Playground

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Rehm from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

I recently received an inquiry from a student about working through the challenges caused and exacerbated by her bullying professor, because unfortunately, bullying has never been limited to work or a school filled with children. This is my response.

Sorry to hear about your professor making your life miserable. I have two pieces of advice for dealing with him. Here is how you can proceed to protect your rights:

  1. Under Title IX, you likely have the right to take medical leave from school to deal with your psychiatric condition. This should allow you to stay in the program and preserve your ability to get your degree. This will at least give you time to treat your mental health condition so you can deal with your bullying professor. Here’s a blog post that touches on that portion of your concern.
  2. Once you get your mental health together, I would attempt to band together with other students who have been bullied by the professor and bring it up with the administration. I find there is more power for people when they band together rather when the face their employer, or in your case school administration, as individuals. This blog post shows some information about what to do when you’re dealing with a bully.

I sent you these blog posts so you can understand the underlying legal principles here. As a student you are protected against discrimination by Title IX. This includes protection from harassment that is motivated by sex, race, religion, etc. However this professor seems to be an equal-opportunity jerk, which means his conduct is not against the law. However, you likely have some protections based on disability as well under Title IX. Your mental-health condition is a disability, so at the very least the school will probably have to grant you some leave to take care of your mental-health condition.

The weakness with asking for accommodations from a bullying boss based on a mental-health condition is that administrators and courts tend to view people with mental-health conditions as overly sensitive and unreasonable.

If you can get a few people to join with you in standing up to a bully, you are in a stronger position. It sounds like you would have some people who would be willing to join with you. You are in a stronger position than you think. Your major is an industry that is competitive where the pay is fairly low. There is no shortage of people who are qualified to be teachers within you major. I’m sure they could hire someone with a basic sense of decency.

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Nanotechnology in the Workplace

Today’s post comes from guest author Leonard Jernigan from The Jernigan Law Firm.

During cancer research in 1986 an accident created the first man-made nanoparticle, an incredibly small particle which can absorb radiant energy and theoretically destroy a tumor. One type of nanoparticle is 20 times stronger than steel and is found in over 1,300 consumer products, including laptops, cell phones, plastic bottles, shampoos, sunscreens, acne treatment lotions and automobile tires. It is the forerunner of the next industrial revolution.

What is the problem? Unfortunately, nanoparticles are somewhat unpredictable and no one really knows how they react to humans. A report out of China claims that two nano-workers died as a result of overexposure, and in Belgium five males inhaled radioactive nanoparticles in an experiment and within 60 seconds the nanoparticles shot straight into the bloodstream, which is a potential setup for disaster. In a survey of scientists 30% listed “new health problems” associated with nanotechnology as a major concern.

Lewis L. Laska, a business law professor, wrote an article in Trial Magazine (September, 2012) in which he advised lawyers to become knowledgeable about nanoscience and be aware of the potential harm to workers and others who come in contact with this new technology, particularly because the EPA, FDA and OSHA have neither approved nor disapproved the use of nanostructures in products. It has been said that workers are like canaries in the cage (in mining operations), and if nanoscience is a danger then workers’ compensation lawyers will be the first to see it and appreciate it.

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North Carolina Workplace Deaths Lower in 2012

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson from The Jernigan Law Firm.

Over the past decade, North Carolina has witnessed an ongoing decrease in the number of workplace fatalities. This past year (2012) there was a total of thirty-five reported workplace fatalities. In 2004, for example, there were 90 workplace fatalities.  According to the Department of Labor, the Occupational Safety and Health Division has been working with the state’s most hazardous industries to prevent deaths on the job. However, North Carolina continues to have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country at 9.2 % (December 2012) and with fewer jobs there are obviously fewer chances of an accidental death on the job.

According to the National Council for Occupational Safety the number of fatalities may be artificially low. In a report published in April of 2012 entitled “North Carolina Workers: Dying for a Job,” the National Council for Occupational Safety alleges that the N.C. Department of Labor’s “report of occupational fatalities greatly understates the true extent of the problem.” (http://www.coshnetwork.org/north-carolina-workers-dying-job). The report further states that the listed fatalities “include only those cases that the state OSHA program investigated” and that their internal analysis found that about thirty additional deaths occurred in 2011. The National Council for Occupational Safety then recommended stricter deterrents to promote safe work environments, imposition of more penalties as permitted under the current statutes, as well as a special emphasis program to protect Hispanic workers.

Let’s hope that on the job fatalities continue to drop in 2013, but beyond “hope” the best way to insure a continued decrease is to make all employees and employers aware of potential life threatening dangers and then enforce compliance with safety standards.

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Factory Fires in Pakistan Are A Painful Reminder Of Safety Oversights

A recent fire at a Pakistani garment factory is reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire

Today’s post comes from guest author Leonard Jernigan from The Jernigan Law Firm.

The fires in two clothing factories in Pakistan on August 12, 2012, where locked exit doors and lack of safety inspections helped fuel the flames of death for over 300 people, has similarity with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York (147 deaths) in March of 1911, and the chicken factory fire in Hamlet, N.C.  (54 deaths) in 1991. Both sites had locked exit doors that trapped workers. Two brothers owned the Triangle factory and two brothers owned the factories in Pakistan. Garment workers jumped to their deaths in New York and workers in Pakistan were forced to jump out of upper-floor windows to try to escape the flames.  It was reported that Punjab province safety inspections were abolished in 2003 to develop a more “business friendly environment,” and the Hamlet factory had never been inspected in 11 years of operation.

The latest news is that the factories that burned in Pakistan were allegedly inspected just weeks before the fires by Social Accountability International (SAI), a nonprofit monitoring group that gets much of its financing from corporations. Western companies (like Gap and Gucci), who make clothes in Pakistan and other countries where the labor is cheap, relied on SAI to give them some peace of mind about working conditions, but the total failure of SAI to do it the job is evident. Either it was sleep walking while doing inspections and just going through the motions, or it was just a front for major corporations.

In the United Sates, as we strive to downsize government in the years ahead, we need to keep in mind that government regulations concerning safety must be enforced. If not, safety everywhere will become an issue  – on the highway, in the products we use and the food we eat – and we may similarly find ourselves, or a family member, trapped in a deadly situation, with no way out.