Category Archives: Workplace Safety

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Is Your Job Causing Asthma or Making It Worse?

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

The spring allergy season that also causes asthma concerns is upon us, and this is especially evident in the Great Plains, where the wind blows dust and pollen throughout most days. 

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 16 percent of American adults had asthma that was either caused or aggravated by conditions at work. According to the National Institutes of Health, workers who are regularly exposed to chemicals and dust, such as millers, bakers, woodworkers and farm workers, are most vulnerable to work-related asthma. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America states that adults lose 14 million work days per year because of asthma. 

In terms of Nebraska, this means that approximately 134,400 days of work are missed in Nebraska due to work-related asthma. In Iowa, that number is closer to 224,000 days of work that are missed because of work-related asthma. This is an estimate of missed days nationwide in proportion to the population of the states. 

Workers should make sure their employers are providing safety equipment that protects against respiratory injury. Employees should make sure they are carrying inhalers in the workplace if they have been prescribed them by a doctor for asthma. 

But if a worker suspects their work is causing breathing problems or making pre-existing asthma worse, they should report that as a workers’ compensation injury and seek treatment with a specialist in treating breathing conditions. Medical bills for treating asthma should be covered like any other work injury, and any lost time because of work-related asthma should entitle an employee to temporary disability for lost time and permanent disability for permanent breathing problems. 

Work-related asthma would also be a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and under similar state laws. Further, an employee has protection against retaliation under most states’ laws, including Nebraska and Iowa, as well as under federal law, for reporting work conditions that cause asthma and/or from claiming workers’ compensation benefits for work-related asthma.

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Measuring Our Progress Since The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

As an attorney who practices in the field of Workers’ Compensation, there are some events that are seminal in the history of workplace safety. One of those events was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 2011. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest factories in New York and employed 500 mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women between the ages of 13 and 23.

These women worked long hours for low wages in this cramped sweatshop at sewing machines to produce women’s blouses, known in those days as shirtwaists. In order to protect themselves from their claim of thefts by the workers, the factory owners would lock the doors to one of the stairways leading to the street. While the union movement in New York was very strong and some of the workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the factory itself was a non-union shop; many believed the owners would lock their doors to keep organizers out. Whatever the reason, locking those doors had devastating effects. 

On that fateful day in March, a fire broke out that was fueled by thousands of pounds of fabric. Many were able to escape to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. Unfortunately for those on the ninth floor, there was very little means of escape. The elevator proved inadequate as it was only able to accommodate 12 people at a time, and the operator was only able to make four trips before it broke down totally. Bodies of many of the workers were found at the bottom of locked stairwells or in the elevator shaft when they tried to escape. The fire escape was flimsy and when it became overloaded with panicked women, it broke and sent dozens to their death. Those trapped in the factory by the fire were left with the agonizing choice of jumping to their deaths or being burned alive. Many chose to jump. Bystanders recounted stories of seeing victims kiss each other or hold hands as they jumped two and three at a time; they described the horrific thud as bodies landed on the stone streets below. When the final tally was taken, 146 people had perished. The catastrophe sent shockwaves throughout New York City and the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where families struggled to recognize the charred remains of their loved ones in makeshift morgues. 

On March 24, 1911, the New York Court of Appeals declared the state’s compulsory Workers’ Compensation law unconstitutional. The next day, 146 people were dead from that Triangle Shirtwaist fire. With no Workers’ Compensation system in place, family members and dependents had to turn to the courts in an attempt to force Triangle to compensate the injured and the families of the deceased. A civil suit brought by 23 victims’ families against the owners netted a whopping $75 in damages per victim! New Yorkers were appalled and angry at the greed and negligence of the owners and managers. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a preventable tragedy caused by unsafe work conditions and was a catalyst for change. New York finally adopted a Workers’ Compensation law in 1913. This law was intended to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and afford them with wage replacement benefits and medical treatment in exchange for giving up their right to sue. Unfortunately, we see an erosion of many of these benefits under the guise of reform, while insurance companies have made record profits. This month, while we acknowledge this grim anniversary, we need to make sure that these women’s deaths were not in vain. Let us never forget the reason Workers’ Compensation laws were enacted, and let’s be sure the system is not watered down to the point that injured workers and their families go back to getting $75 for a preventable death.

  

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717. 

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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.