Occupational Health News Roundup

Today in Mother Jones, reporter Stephanie Mencimer writes a great piece previewing an upcoming Supreme Court case that could transform how pregnant women are treated in the workplace. In fact, the case has attracted the attention and support of some very strange bedfellows. Mencimer writes:

It’s a rare day when pro-choice activists, anti-abortion diehards, and evangelical Christians all file briefs on the same side of a Supreme Court case. But that’s what happened recently when the National Association of Evangelicals, Americans United for Life, Democrats for Life of America, and the National Women’s Law Center joined forces to support Peggy Young, a Maryland woman alleging that she was the victim of pregnancy discrimination.

According to the article, after Young, a driver for UPS, became pregnant, she provided her employer with a note from a doctor and midwife about appropriate work restrictions, including the recommendation that she not lift more than 20 pounds while pregnant. UPS responded by saying that Young wasn’t fit to perform her job duties and that the company wasn’t obliged to accommodate her needs. Young was forced to take six months of unpaid leave, eventually losing her health insurance and other benefits.

Young sued UPS claiming a violation of the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA), but she lost. Now the Supreme Court is taking up the question of whether the act requires employers to accommodate pregnant workers. (UPS claims that it’s treating Young the same as other workers who request job changes — that it’s “pregnancy neutral,” as was reported in another article published in the Economist.) But Mencimer writes:

Therein lies the rub: Employers aren’t treating their workers especially well. One of the questions for the court, as a result, is whether 40 years after the passage of the PDA, pregnant women have only won equal rights to get screwed over on the job.

Mencimer also delves into the 1976 Supreme Court case that led to Congress establishing the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and advises readers to expect some “fireworks at oral arguments, particularly from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” who authored an ACLU amicus brief in the 1976 case that helped prompt Congress to take action.

In other news:

Buzzfeed: Reporter Chris Hamby writes about new legislation designed to stop coal companies’ under-handed efforts to deny compensation to workers suffering from black lung disease. The federal legislation, which was proposed by Sens. Robert Casey, D-Penn., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.V., would “root out” systematic bias in X-ray readings, allow workers to reopen their cases due to the involvement of discredited doctors, and help level the legal playing field between miners and coal companies. Hamby writes that the “bill’s prospects for passage this year look dim because toxic partisan battles have made it hard to pass almost any legislation. Still, the bill marks a major milestone in the fight of mine workers to secure much-needed benefits.” In related and unfortunate news, rates of black lung disease are soaring.

The New York Times: About 2,000 Amazon workers in Germany walked off the job this week in a wage dispute with the online giant. Writer Melissa Eddy reports that workers want Amazon to recognize itself as a retailer, which would mean the company would have to abide by labor laws that require wages be set through collective bargaining. According to Eddy, the company employs about 9,000 full-time workers in Germany as well as thousands of additional temporary workers.

Boston Globe: In an opinion piece, writer Anne Skomorowsky, a psychiatrist with Columbia University, writes about the dangers that many health care workers face on the job. She cites previous research finding that a majority of nurses and doctors working in emergency rooms report physical and verbal abuse in encounters with patients, noting that “workplace violence should never be considered an unfortunate part of the job; it’s an abuse of the worker’s liberty and security.” Skomorowsky writes that hospitals can benefit from taking a human rights approach to health care that protects both patients and workers.

Huffington Post: Congressional Republicans have proposed a bill that would bring big changes to the National Labor Relations Board. Labor advocates, however, say the proposal would lead to even more gridlock. Reporter Dave Jamieson writes about a proposal from Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., that expands the board’s members from five to six, evenly divided between three Democrats and three Republicans. (Traditionally, the board has five members, with three members coming from the current president’s party.) Jamieson writes that a board evenly split between party lines could mean the most contentious cases go unresolved for years. He quoted Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America, as saying: “This is the destruction of the NLRB, and they know it. It is a disgrace. Lamar Alexander is a disgrace.”

Bloomberg Businessweek: Reporter Josh Eidelson writes about new OSHA rules going into effect in January that will require employers to report within 24 hours incidents in which a worker loses an eye, undergoes amputation or gets admitted to a hospital with a work-related injury. The injury data will be made public as well. Eidelson quotes OSHA head David Michaels as saying: “We believe that the possibility of public reporting of serious injuries will encourage—or, in the behavioral economics term, nudge—employers to take steps to prevent injuries so they’re not seen as unsafe places to work. After all, if you had a choice of applying for a job at a place where a worker had just lost a hand, vs. one where no amputation has occurred, which would you choose?”

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.