Occupational Health News Roundup

An injured worker who was featured in the ProPublica/NPR investigation on the dismantling of the workers’ compensation system recently testified before lawmakers in Illinois, cautioning them against making the same drastic workers’ comp cuts as his home state of Oklahoma. Michael Grabell, who co-authored the original investigation, writes that John Coffell, who lost his home after hurting his back at an Oklahoma tire plant, was part of an eight-hour hearing on workers’ comp before the entire Illinois state assembly. Grabell writes in ProPublica:

Coffell told the legislators that after injuring a disc in his back last summer, his pay dropped dramatically because Oklahoma had reduced the maximum wage-replacement benefits injured workers could receive from $801 a week to $561 a week.

Almost immediately, he said, his utilities were cut off, his truck was repossessed and his family was evicted from their rental home. Because no relative could accommodate all of them, Coffell sent his three children, aged 5 to 9, to live with grandparents. He and his wife only had enough gas money to see them on weekends. They've had to rely on food stamps to get by.

Asked by a legislator how it felt to not be able to support his family, Coffell said, "It's indescribable, really. Pretty much if I was to give a crazy example, if you were to see your husband or child drowning in a pool, but not being able to get them out of it. Kind of the same feeling."

Grabell reports that the hearing comes as Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner puts forth a number of pro-business proposals that could roll back the state's workers’ comp system, such as allowing workers’ comp judges to give equal weight to the opinions of doctors who are hired by insurance companies instead of giving deference to workers’ physicians. During the hearing, Grabell reports that participants repeatedly drew comparisons between Illinois and Indiana, which has the second cheapest insurance rates for employers in the country. Workers and their families exemplified the differences between the two states — Grabell reports:

Workers and their families praised Illinois' law. Christine Fuller — who lived in Indiana, but whose father died from falling off a roof on a job in Illinois — said the survivor benefits she received from workers' comp helped pay the mortgage and put her through college and graduate school.

Meanwhile, Laurie Summers — an Illinois nurse who dislocated her shoulder lifting a patient at a hospital in Indiana — said she had to drain her retirement savings and fight to get surgery.

"I believed with all my heart that my hospital would take care of me," she said. "What I did not know, however, is that working in Indiana takes away that simple security."

To read the full article, visit ProPublica.

In other news:

Houston Chronicle: Susan Carroll and Lise Olsen report that OSHA has proposed $99,000 in fines against DuPont for failing to prevent four worker deaths inside a pesticide unit in La Porte, Texas. OSHA also cited the company for 11 violations and identified a number of needed upgrades. The deadly workplace incident happened last year when workers were exposed to a toxic gas known as methyl mercaptan, an ingredient in a popular pesticide. Carroll and Lise report that the OSHA investigation found that workers weren’t properly trained to use the building’s ventilation system and in fact, according to documents obtained by the newspaper, the ventilation fans in the pesticide unit had been broken for months. In the article, Carroll and Lise quoted The Pump Handle’s own Celeste Monforton, who said the “penalities poked holes in DuPont's ‘veneer’ of safety and represented ‘less than a  slap on the wrist for a billion dollar company. It illustrates why Congress needs to fix OSHA's penalty system.’”

BBC: Reporter Mark Lobel writes that he and a team of fellow BBC journalists were monitored, arrested and detained in Qatar while investigating the experiences of migrant laborers who are building accommodations for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Lobel writes: “Mustafa Qadri, Amnesty International's Gulf migrant rights researcher, told us the detentions of journalists and activists could be attempts ‘to intimidate those who seek to expose labour abuse in Qatar.’ Qatar, the world's richest country for its population size of little more than two million people, is pouring money into trying to improve its reputation for allowing poor living standards for low-skilled workers to persist.” An article published late last year in the Guardian reported that Nepalese migrant workers building World Cup infrastructure in Qatar died at a rate of one every two days in 2014.

Salon: Katie McDonough writes about a new Human Rights Watch report that finds service members who report a sexual assault are 12 times more likely to experience some kind of retaliation than to see their attackers convicted. The report is based on interviews with more than 150 service members, both men and women. McDonough writes: “The consequences of the current climate are pretty straightforward: when reporting a rape is more likely to get you punished or kicked out of the military than raping someone, service members don’t report. And this will remain the case until current mechanisms in place to prevent retaliation are meaningfully enforced and other protections are added. But the United States may be a long way off from both.”

The New York Times: In the aftermath of a New York Times investigation into the working conditions at nail salons and the serious dangers to workers’ health, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that he would seek new rules to improve safety at nail salons and protect workers’ rights. However, reporter Jim Dwyer reminds readers that nail salon workers are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the exploitation of immigrant workers. He began his article with the story of Chitra KC, who worked at a gas station in Holbrook, New York, and is one of more than two-dozen immigrant workers with wage theft claims against the owner. Dwyer writes: “Immigrants are the pilings of the New York economy, the providers of low-cost, seamless comforts like 24-hour takeout food, cheap nail salons, all-night gas stations, nonunion construction workers. Some entered the United States legally; others did not. The ability of unscrupulous employers to steal wages can take your breath away.”

The Los Angeles Times: Lawmakers in Los Angeles are poised to vote on whether to raise the local minimum wage to $15. Reporter Emily Alpert Reyes writes that if Los Angeles goes forward with the wage hike, workers will experience an incremental increase in wages that will eventually reach $15 by 2020. Reyes writes: “The wage proposal would hike pay more slowly than some activists wanted. But leaders in the Raise the Wage Coalition nonetheless heralded it last week as a sound plan to improve the standard of living for low-income workers and their families.”

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

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