Occupational Health News Roundup

Wyoming has had the highest rate of workplace deaths in recent years – 15.6 fatalities per 100,000 workers from 2005-2007. Oil field workers, or roughnecks, are at particular risk, and some of them are pushing the state to make it easier for injured workers and dead workers’ survivors to sue oil companies. The Los Angeles Times’ DeeDee Correll explains the situation in Wyoming:

State law does not prohibit [workers from suing oil companies], but in recent years courts have made it increasingly difficult for them to even try, said Riverton Mayor John Vincent, a lawyer who represents injured workers.

Roughnecks don’t work directly for oil companies but for independent contractors hired by the firms. The contractors, who pay into the state’s workers’ compensation fund, are immune from lawsuits.

The oil companies are not, and until about a decade ago, Wyoming courts routinely held that owners who maintained control over their work site owed a “duty of reasonable care” to their contractors’ employees.

Despite a 1986 state Supreme Court ruling to that effect, the courts in recent years began applying a new standard: To make a case, an injured worker had to prove that the operator maintained “pervasive” control over the site. Few, if any, workers have succeeded.

Yet, roughnecks say that oil and gas companies exert significant control over their sites — and therefore should be liable for unsafe practices.

Legislation that would have made oil-worker lawsuits easier failed in the state legislature last year, but a similar bill has been introduced in this session.

In other news:

EHS Today: In the space of a single week, three workers were killed on the job in Massachusetts: police officer Michael Davey, 34, killed while directing traffic at a utility site; water department employee Jeffrey Burgess, struck by a van while repairing a water main break; and a 51-year-old worker at a pet food warehouse who fell from a forklift.

New York Times: Vietnam veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress syndrome still dominate the Veterans Administration PTSD caseload.

Tri-City Herald (Washington): A new study finds that former construction workers from the Hanford nuclear site have an increased risk of death from mesothelioma and multiple myeloma.

New York Times’ City Room blog: Legislation introduced in the New York City Council would require employers to let their workers earn paid sick days (five days each year at small businesses, and nine or more at large ones).

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