Occupational Health News Roundup

Home health workers who care for the elderly and disabled are an indispensable part of our healthcare workforce – but the Bush Administration’s Department of Labor decided that they shouldn’t be covered by the same wage and hour laws that protect most workers. The Associated Press’s Sam Hananel explains that the administration based this determination on their interpretation of the Fair Labor Standards Act that was amended in 1974 to exempt babysitters and companions to the elderly and sick. Earlier this week, a group of 15 Democratic Senators, headed by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, urged Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to interpret the FLSA as applying to home health workers.

To get a sense of just how important this issue is, everyone should read Paula Span’s terrific article about home-care aides from the Washington Post Magazine. The piece focuses on Marilyn Daniel, a 63-year old home-care aide who has become a trusted and essential caregiver for the senior clients she serves. Daniel is often gone from home for 12 hours, catching buses to travel between clients’ homes and lacking any time off for meals. She’s lucky to work for a nonprofit agency located in DC, which has a living wage law; the average wage among Daniel’s co-workers is $12.40 an hour, and Span reports that many home-care aides don’t do that well. An agency that charges clients $20 an hour will likely pass less than half of that along to the worker, and not provide benefits; working on the “gray market,” an aide might earn $15 an hour, but she won’t be covered by workers’ compensation and she may be unemployed for stretches of time between clients.

As Baby Boomers age and require more assistance with activities of daily living, we’ll have an even greater need for home health workers. We should make sure they have adequate protections – and that they themselves can get healthcare, too.

In other news:

Associated Press: OSHA proposes fining Wal-Mart the maximum allowed amount of $7,000 for inadequate crowd management in connection with the death of temporary employee Jdimytai Damour, who was crushed by crowds at a Black Friday sale in a Long Island Wal-Mart store (via The Fine Print).

Charleston Gazette/Coal Tattoo: The family of Chad Cook, who was killed while driving a coal truck, fought to have the Mine Safety and Health Agency investigate his death. As a result, MSHA and state officials might eventually have to do a better job of investigating all mining deaths, and providing more information about how they decide whether a death is mining-related or not.

San Antonio Express-News: Six Texans who exhibited symptoms after exposure to burn pits at US military sites in Iraq in Afghanistan are suing contractors KBR and Halliburton. According to a plaintiffs’ attorney, 34 suits involving the burn pits have been filed or are expected to be filed in 34 states.

Las Vegas Review-Journal: Nevada Governor Jim Gibbons has signed into law a bill requiring construction workers and supervisors to attend health and safety course training within 15 days after they’re hired.

The Australian: Following a ruling by Britain’s high court that allows more than 1,000 British veterans to pursue class-action claims for health problems following their exposure to nuclear tests, Australian veterans exposed to nuclear testing in the 1950s have stated that they will lodge a class-action suit of their own if their government does not agree to award compensation and benefits by the end of the month.

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