Occupational Health News Roundup

North Carolina’s News & Observer has published a terrific in-depth series on “ghost policies” – inadequate workers’ compensation policies that save employers money but leave injured workers without the safety net they’re supposed to have. North Carolina requires employers with three or more employees to have workers’ compensation coverage, and general contractors often require coverage even for smaller firms. But a News & Observer investigation found that more than 30,000 businesses in the state lack the required coverage. Mandy Locke writes about one injured worker whose employer’s use of a ghost policy left him without the care he needs:

Clementé Hernandez Gonzalez, a longtime employee of Worrell Construction Co., severely injured his spinal cord in March 2009 after another employee fell asleep at the wheel and wrecked the company vehicle. Gonzalez feels nearly nothing from the chest down; experts predict a lifetime of care will cost nearly $8 million.

Gonzalez, 39, has yet to receive a single check. More than a quarter-million dollars in medical bills at Pitt Memorial Hospital in Greenville have not been paid. If the policies had been clear and complete, the insurer would have likely settled within months instead of litigating for years, and Gonzalez would have gotten needed care quickly.

… His wife and web of extended family … meet in the mornings and in the evenings to get him in and out of bed. While they know that better beds and physical therapy might help Gonzalez’s condition, those luxuries are out of reach until his workers’ compensation claim is settled.

Employers often try to avoid insurance requirements by claiming those who work for them are independent contractors, a move that’s illegal when the workers function as employees. This practice has implications for Social Security and unemployment as well as workers’ compensation coverage – and it effectively penalizes the law-abiding employers who pay the required insurance costs. The three News & Observer articles in the series explain what the problem is and how it affects people across North Carolina:

In a demonstration of how investigative journalism can spur political action (or at least the promise of action), Locke reports, “North Carolina’s leaders – and those campaigning to take charge in the coming year – promised Wednesday to wake a sleeping government in order to stop businesses that misclassify employees as contractors and avoid paying taxes and buying workers’ compensation insurance.”

In other news:

Center for Public Integrity: After a flash fire at the Franklin, Kentucky Toyo Automotive Parts factory killed Tina Hall, Kentucky regulators cited the company for 16 serious violations and proposed a fine of more than $100,000. But then Toyo threatened to contest the violations and fine in court, and officials dropped them. They’ve now reinstated the violations due to a lack of promised safety improvements, but all too often state OSHA programs drop the violations and keep them that way – and victims’ family members can remain in the dark.

International Business Times: Seven of the thirteen former General Motors workers who are staging a hunger strike in protest of the company’s mistreatment of workers have sewn their mouths shut.

NPR: Commercial fishing is the most dangerous job in the US. In Alaska, collaborative efforts improved safety; now, training efforts are underway in Northeast fisheries.

McClatchy Newspapers: The Obama administration announced in December a proposal to end an exemption in the Fair Labor Standards Act that leaves home health workers out of federal minimum-wage and overtime protection. But the rule change hasn’t been finalized, and labor activists worry that Romney presidential victory would mean the end of it.

In These Times: Laboratory research on the butter-flavoring chemical diacetyl suggests that in addition to being a respiratory hazard, it might contribute to brain deterioration. Yet the US regulatory response to diacetyl is likely to remain inadequate. (Celeste is quoted in this piece; you can see our past posts on diacetyl here.)

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