Category Archives: Workplace Injury

Reversing OSHA Rules Will Undercut Workplace Safety

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

President Trump recently signed a Congressional resolution revoking an Obama administration OSHA rule that required employers to retain records of work injuries for five and that prohibited retaliation against workers for reporting injuries. The revoked OSHA rule would have also limited drug testing of employees who reported injuries.

Debbie Berkowitz of the National Employment Law Project and a former OSHA official criticized the action because limiting the amount of time an employer must retain records about injuries because it doesn’t provide enough information to identify recurring safety issues.

At least in Nebraska, employers are required to file First Reports of Injury with the Nebraska Workers Compensation Court. The information contained in those reports serves a similar function to OSHA logs and would allow workers, unions, attorneys and or regulators to identify recurring safety problems. Those reports are also public records. I recently testified against an insurance industry supported bill in the Nebraska legislature that would have made those reports confidential records.

The recently revoked OSHA rule also would have prohibited retaliation against employees who report OSHA violations. Nebraska already has anti-retaliation laws that protect employees who claim workers’ compensation benefits that would cover many cases where an employer would have to record an injury for OSHA. My opinion is that the OSHA General Duty clause which states that employers have a duty to provide a workplace free of recognizable hazards provides additional anti-retaliation protections to Nebraska employees through our state whistleblower statute. But the revocation of the OSHA anti-retaliation rule may weaken those protections.

The OSHA record keeping/anti-retaliation rule was revoked through the Congressional Review Act. You can read more about that law works here. Congress and President Trump have also revoked an executive order that would have prevented employers who violated fair employment laws from obtaining federal contracts. You can read more about that rule here.

With Beautiful Snow Comes Dangerous Conditions

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

The New York metropolitan area recently got its first significant snow of the season and while it is not unusual to see snow in January, it is significant as it was part of a system that impacted much of the country. Winter Storm Helena started out pounding the western portion of the United States before heading  south and barreling up the east coast. There were a number of fatalities and injuries as a result of this intense storm.

Locally, some areas of Queens and Long Island received up to a foot of snow. While the snow can be beautiful and peaceful when it is falling, it cannot stay on the streets and on the sidewalks once it stops.  Cities, towns, and other municipalities are responsible for snow removal in public areas and roadways, but it is up to home- and business-owners to make sure it is removed from the sidewalks in front of their properties. That means getting out the shovels or snow blowers.  

Unfortunately for many people, this activity can result in serious injury. In 2011, the American Journal of Emergency Medicine published the results of a study that found on average 11,000 people were hospitalized per year as a result of injuries caused by shoveling snow. The most common injuries are back injures caused by lifting the heavy snow, heart issues caused by overexertion, and slip-and-fall injuries. Shoveling snow can be very strenuous depending upon the amount and type of snow. Many people try to shovel as quickly as possible in order to get out of the cold. Unfortunately, this attempt at shortcutting can have serious consequences.

According to experts, you can alleviate some of the stress on your back by using a good shovel and picking up smaller loads of snow. Use your legs instead of your back when lifting, and avoid twisting at your waist to reduce the chance of an injury. Shovel straight ahead to minimize excessive movements, and don’t throw the snow over your shoulder unless you are training for a fitness magazine cover. Take frequent breaks to hydrate and to get warm. Slipping and falling on ice and snow can result in broken bones and other serious injuries. It goes without saying that slip-resistant footwear is a necessity.

Shoveling snow is an aerobic activity that raises your heart rate. Combined with the cold temperatures, it can lead to deadly heart problems. While only 7% of snow injuries were related to heart problems, the majority of the fatalities were heart-related. If you have a heart condition, heed your doctor’s advice regarding strenuous activity. Death can occur to those tasked with the responsibility of shoveling snow while on the job as well. Some employees are directed to remove snow not just on the sidewalks, but on roofs and other structures. In 2012, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) issued a hazard alert as a result of 16 preventable workplace fatalities that occurred in a span of 10 years. The majority of these deaths were as a result of falls from heights.   

Needless to say, precautions need to be taken for both home owners as well as workers. However, if you are on the job, there are steps you need to take if you are the unfortunate victim of an injury. First, seek immediate medical treatment. Make sure you notify your employer within 30 days and file a claim with the New York State Worker’s Compensation board within two years. Your employer has Workers’ Compensation insurance for wage replacement and medical treatment so you should not pay anything either out of pocket or through your own private insurance. The winter season can be fun but it can also be dangerous for you and your friends and co-workers. Help out your elderly neighbor, invest in a good shovel, wear appropriate clothing, and be careful out there. Snow is beautiful, but it can also be dangerous.

 

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.

Finding A Way Forward: How I Am Greeting The New Year With Optimism

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

I recently saw a quote that said “we are all just a car crash, a diagnosis, an unexpected phone call, a newfound love, or a broken heart away from becoming a completely different person. How beautifully fragile are we that so many things can take but a moment to alter who we are for forever”.   

During this holiday season, many of us will get together with our families and friends to celebrate our blessings but never expect that in the blink of an eye our lives can change dramatically. A very good friend of mine was celebrating Thanksgiving with her family when a pot of boiling water fell onto her and she suffered severe burns. After spending nine days in the Burn Center and in weeks of excruciating pain, she is living proof that there are no guarantees in life.  

A recent report by Fox News USA shows that unintentional shootings spike during the holidays and are more likely to occur than at any other time of the year due to a number of factors, including increased use of alcohol, holiday gifts of firearms, and children and teens being home from school with more free time. Many of us now rely on online shopping for our holiday gifts, which increases the amount of delivery vehicles on the road. Car crashes spike, as the December holiday season is one of the busiest travel times of the years. Factor in weather that does not always cooperate, and impaired drivers on the road as a result of holiday gatherings, and it is a recipe for disaster. Those who drive for a living are at an increased risk of injury or even death. 

Those who work in the retail industry are not immune from increased risk of injury either. Many of us won’t forget the Black Friday stampede in 2008 when a worker was trampled to death in a Long Island Walmart. In response to that tragedy, the company was fined, they agreed to adopt new crowd management techniques, and  the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for retailers. The stress of the holidays can cause depression, less sleep, and financial woes that can translate into violence. OSHA notes that workplace violence has remained among the top four causes of occupational death. 

But the promise of tomorrow brings optimism. As we embark on a brand new year, many of us will feel a sense of relief as 2016 was a year filled with turmoil. The presidential election was polarizing for many Americans. Friends became enemies and family members would not speak to one other. Many of us will look to the new year with a sense of a new beginning – a chance to have a fresh start, a renewal of sorts. Many of us will make resolutions to lose weight, to end a bad habit, to become a better parent, spouse or friend. Many will donate to charities. Despite our differences and shortcomings, Americans are among the most charitable nation in the world. According to Giving USA’s annual report in 2015, Americans gave an estimated $358 billion to charity the prior year. There are so many things we can do to improve our lives and the lives of those in our community and our nation. The list of possibilities is endless. For those of us who represent injured workers, we resolve to make workplaces safer and ensure that medical and indemnity benefits are available in the future. Wishing you all Peace, Love, and Good Health in the upcoming year.

 

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.

Chemical Exposure in Chicken Plants

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

Several members of Congress have written to Secretary of Labor Tom Perez, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Burwell regarding the danger of the chemical PAA, which is used to sanitize chickens in poultry plants.

According to The Pump Handle blog written by occupational health expert Celeste Monforton, the increase in the use of PAA is linked to the Department of Agriculture’s “modernized inspection” system. Though meatpacking is well known for the prevalence of musculoskeletal injuries, chemical exposure is a less well-known, but similarly serious hazard, to meatpacking workers, which has been recognized by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The hazards of chemical exposure are not limited to meat-processing workers. Chemical exposure fatalities are too common in rural America. Recently, a worker on an industrial cleaning crew in Beatrice, Nebraska, was killed from inhaling industrial cleaning chemicals. In October, a resident of northeast Nebraska was killed after inhaling chemicals from a leak in anhydrous ammonia pipeline. That same month, 125 residents of Atchison, Kansas, sought treatment for inhalation of chlorine gas from an explosion at a distiller.

While chemical exposure can often result in sudden death, ongoing exposure to chemicals can also create injuries that may not be apparent for years after the exposure. Unfortunately, Nebraska limits the ability of workers to recover for such injuries.

The letter about the hazards of PAA was written to outgoing cabinet members. The new Trump administration is expected to have a less-aggressive approach toward regulating the workplace. Hopefully the new administration will take the threat posed by hazardous chemicals in the workplace seriously.

The High Cost of Fat

Today’s post comes from guest author Thomas Domer, from The Domer Law Firm.

We have reported regularly on the impact of obesity on workers’ compensation (see WFW October 2005 “Diabetes and Work Injuries” Alan B. King, M.D. and WFW Winter 2009 “The Rising Impact of Obesity on Workers’ Compensation” book review).

A recent study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, in September 2016 reported that obese and overweight workers are more likely to result in higher costs related to workers’ compensation claims, especially for major injuries.

In a study analyzing 2,300 workers in Louisiana, Dr. Edward Bernacki of the University of Texas—Austin found that workers’ compensation costs and outcomes for obese workers (defined as a Body Mass Index of 30 or higher) incurred higher costs related to their workers’ compensation claim. This study noted that after three years about 10% of claims for significant injuries were still open, meaning the worker had not yet returned to work. Obesity and overweight did not play a role in the delayed return to work. However, for workers with major injuries, overweight was associated with higher workers’ compensation costs. In the group with the higher Body Mass Index, costs averaged about $470,000 for obese workers, $270,000 for overweight workers compared to $180,000 for normal weight workers (with a Body Mass Index between 25 and 30). The study made adjustments for other factors including the high cost of spinal surgeries and injections and, after making the adjustment for these factors, obese or overweight workers with major injuries were twice as likely to incur costs of $100,000 or more. Significantly, Body Mass Index had no effect at all on costs for closed claims or less severe injuries.

Previous studies (including a study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine in 2015 linked obesity to a higher rate of workplace injuries and a longer time off. However, the cost effects were not studied until this recent assessment. The new results indicate obesity is a significant risk factor for higher costs in major workers’ compensation injuries.

One significant finding in the study was that more than three-fourths of the workers’ compensation claimants were overweight or obese. Further studies are planned. Previous studies include those from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) “How Obesity Increases the Risk of Disabling Workplace InjuriesEditor’s Note:  According to most studies, there is a strong correlation between Body Mass Index and injuries such as ankle fracture severity and increase risk of osteoarthritis. For workers’ compensation practitioners, one wonders whether these studies are a prelude to an assault on the “as is” doctrine. Each of us in our own practice can recognize some of the wide-ranging effects in costs of obesity, from special procedures for hospital treatment of obese patients such as open MRIs and more extensive surgical procedures to a reduced fuel economy in commercial vehicles due to fat drivers. Additionally, the cost of treatment for obese patients with work-related injuries increases the work-related injury potential to medical staff (lifting, transferring, etc.). Increasing admissions of severely obese patients leads to a corresponding increase in medical workplace injuries related to lifting and maneuvering obese patients. Workers’ compensation practitioners may see obesity as yet another “pre-existing condition” to surmount in future causation and extent of disability battles.

Workers Risk Injury During Holiday Shopping Season

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

The day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday as it is known, is anticipated by millions of Americans as a fun holiday shopping tradition that marks the beginning of the Christmas season. But crowded stores and the hunt for bargains can create hazards for shoppers and retail workers. For example, in 2008, a Wal-Mart employee was trampled to death outside a store in New York City.

But leaving aside the extreme examples of hazards, the holiday shopping season poses many less-publicized risks to retail workers.

The first risk posed to holiday workers, especially on a day like Black Friday, is the additional risk of injuries on overnight shifts. The National Institutes of Health reported that the risk of injury on an overnight shift is 30 percent higher than during a day shift. That same report also quoted a British report that showed that work injuries increased exponentially for every hour worked in a shift after eight hours. This is a risk when employees work long hours over the Black Friday weekend and when employees, many who are working another job, come to their holiday jobs after they have already worked a full day. Finally, new and temporary employees, including many holiday workers, face a higher risk for injury.

Today marks the so-called Cyber Monday, when shoppers traditionally place online orders. Online shopping has increased the need for delivery drivers. Delivery driving can be a hazardous job, due to lifting and the risk of motor-vehicle accidents. The risk of delivery driving is compounded by the fact that many delivery drivers are misclassified as independent contractors, so they lack protections like workers’ compensation. One recent story from The Indpendent out of the U.K. revealed that contract delivery drivers for Amazon.com were paid less than the minimum wage and were forced to urinate and defecate in their vehicles to make their deliveries in a timely manner.

Holiday workers face all of these risks for pay that is generally low. Plus, if an injury from a temporary holiday job prevents a person from working their regular, full-time job, that employee faces difficult issues maintaining both employment and benefits with the main, full-time employer.

If there is anything positive about the coverage of Black Friday, it’s helpful that workplace violence among low-wage workers gets covered. Among the most vulnerable to violence are convenience store clerks working overnight shifts. The Indiana Department of Labor did a study that showed 32 convenience store clerks were killed on the job in 2010. Last summer, a clerk was shot at a northwest Lincoln Kwik Shop, here in Nebraska. That murder was covered as a crime story here in Lincoln. However, that murder and the murders like it all across the country should also be covered as workplace-safety stories.

It’s Complicated: Volunteer First Responders Generally Covered for Workers’ Compensation, with Exceptions

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

On a recent Monday, an anhydrous ammonia pipeline leaked near Tekamah in rural northeast Nebraska, leading to one fatality. When such accidents in happen in rural Nebraska, the first responders are usually volunteers.

Nebraska has extended workers’ compensation protections to volunteer firefighters and EMTs by statute. Volunteer first responders also have the same coverage for mental-mental injuries that other first responders have. Even though volunteer firefighters are not usually paid a wage, they can collect disability benefits based on the higher amount of two-thirds their regular wage or the state maximum benefit rate. In 2016, the maximum workers’ compensation rate was $785 per week.

Unfortunately, Nebraska’s volunteer first responders also share the same exclusions from workers’ compensation as professional first responders. Foremost among these exclusions is the exclusion for occupational diseases that Brody Ockander wrote about here last month. In short, if an occupational disease manifests itself after a volunteer first responder retires for reasons not related to the occupational disease, the worker or the worker’s survivors could be excluded from receiving workers’ compensation indemnity benefits.

This exclusion is troublesome because of the regularity that volunteer first responders have to respond to chemical explosions and leaks. These chemicals cause symptoms that might not manifest for years. Last week, in addition to the chemical leak in Tekamah, Nebraska, there was a chemical spill at a grain processing plant in rural Atchison, Kansas, that led to 125 people being treated for chemical inhalation. Nebraska has had fertilizer plant explosions in 2012 and in 2014.

Fertilizer plant explosions are not uncommon in rural America. In 2013, a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, killed 12 first responders and wounded 200 in a town of 2,800. In addition to physical injuries, such devastation can also lead to mental injuries, which is in part why Nebraska expanded so-called “mental-mental” benefits to first responders. However, mental injuries like chemical exposure injuries may have delayed symptoms. I would encourage the Nebraska Legislature to amend court decisions on occupational diseases that would exclude the injuries of volunteer first responders.

Keep Ag Worker Safety in Mind this Harvest Season

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

As harvest kicks off on the Great Plains, please take the time to be safe and make sure you understand the safety policies of your business, whether you’re a worker, a supervisor, or the employer.

The information and resources below are a sometimes-stark reminder of the need for safety all year when it comes to agricultural jobs, especially at harvest, when long hours and the urgency of the time available all affect a person’s decision-making abilities.

First, here’s a summary of a news release from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation that was the result of an elevator supervisor’s death in a soybean bin in March of this year. Sympathies go to the “41-year-old elevator superintendent’s” loved ones. This person’s death is especially tragic because Cooperative Producers Inc. has been cited seven times since 2011 for grain handling safety violations. This most recent violation resulted in a proposed fine of $411,540 and also earned the Hastings, Nebraska-based company a spot in OSHA’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

In this most recent incident, the worker was with two others in a soybean bin, and he “suffocated when his lifeline tangled in an unguarded and rotating auger,” according to the news release.

“OSHA investigators determined three workers, including the elevator superintendent, had been standing over the unguarded auger using a pole in an attempt to dislodge soybean debris in a grain bin that contained more than 50,000 bushels of soybeans sloped 12 to 20 feet up its walls.

“During its investigation, the agency found CPI failed to:

  • Disconnect a subfloor auger before allowing workers to enter.
  • Test atmospheric conditions in grain bins before allowing workers to enter.
  • Implement procedures to prevent sudden machine start-up or unintentional operation, a process known as lockout/tagout.
  • Install adequate machine guarding to avoid contact with moving parts.”

The Nebraska State Patrol on Twitter at @NEStatePatrol recently shared a news release that focused on being even more careful and aware of other vehicles than usual, which was the other motivation for today’s blog post.

Harvest is really ramping up just in time for the days to get shorter and machinery operators to be traveling to and from the fields at hard-to-see hours, especially dawn, dusk and at night. In addition, with the school year starting recently, more inexperienced drivers are driving with school permits on rural roads and might not be able to react as quickly as other drivers would anticipate.

“Combines, grain carts, tractors, and other agricultural implements typically travel at slower speeds,” according to the patrol’s news release. “Due to their dimensions and loads, operator visibility is often reduced. Motorists are reminded to be aware and utilize caution when approaching, following or passing farm vehicles.

“‘Harvest time means tall crops and often limited visibility at rural intersections,’” said Colonel Brad Rice, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol in the news release. “‘Motorists should also be aware of the possibility of wildlife moving around due to the increased activity in the fields.’”

Here are some of the firm’s previous blog posts with additional resources about agricultural jobs and workers’ compensation, grain-handling safety, and harvest.

Please take the time during harvest, and all of the time, to know and follow safety policies and procedures in agricultural jobs. If you’re an employer or manager, it is essential that workers are trained in and implement safety efforts, regardless of the hustle and bustle of the season, harvest or otherwise.

Make sure to contact an experienced workers’ compensation lawyer if you or a loved one has questions about a work-related incident or injury.