Occupational Health News Roundup

Workers who get injured on the job already face significant challenges when trying to access the workers’ compensation system. But for workers who suffer from occupational illnesses related to chemical exposures — illnesses that can develop over long periods of time — the workers’ comp system is nearly useless, according to reporter Jamie Smith Hopkins at the Center for Public Integrity.

In another installment of the center’s eye-opening investigative series “Unequal Risk,” Hopkins explores the often insurmountable barriers that sick workers face — barriers so insurmountable that most people with occupational diseases never even bother filing a claim. In addressing insurers’ assertions that strict rules are needed to prevent workers’ comp fraud, Hopkins reports:

But J. Paul Leigh, a professor of health economics at the University of California, Davis, found major costing-shifting in the other direction. A study he co-wrote in 2004, partially funded with a federal grant and cited in a 2015 report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about how the system fails workers, estimated that more than 95 percent of ultimately-fatal occupational diseases are never covered by workers’ comp.

“It was remarkable — unfortunate, actually — the huge disparity between what workers’ compensation paid for and what epidemiological estimates consider are the true deaths attributed to occupational exposure,” Leigh said.

Taxpayers picked up nearly $27 billion in expenses from work injuries and illnesses in 2007 alone through federal programs such as Medicare, Leigh and a co-author estimated in a separate 2012 study. The biggest share of the burden fell on the workers and their families: an estimated $125 billion, or half the cost.

Among the workers Hopkins writes about is Gene Cooper, who in 2003 helped clean up a spill at the flooring plant where he worked. Seven months following the spill, he was so sick he could no longer work. He eventually succumbed to his illness in 2014. Hopkins writes:

By 2006, (Gene Cooper) was in a nursing home, not speaking, his family unable to tell whether he recognized them or not. As his body deteriorated and Parkinson’s symptoms set in, he lost the ability to swallow, and that was how he died in 2014 — choking on the aspirated contents of his stomach. It’s an image his wife cannot get out of her head.

The bills to care for him were so massive — hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth — that they gobbled up his retirement fund, his investments and his Social Security disability payments. Sandra Cooper had to tap their son’s college fund, the inheritance her late mother left her and lines of credit to keep going.

Her initial efforts to find out if work could be the cause of his illness went nowhere. The occupational medicine specialist who saw him in 2005 couldn’t help because Sandra Cooper had no idea what substances were in the spill. Her lawyer did request her husband’s medical and exposure records that year from his employer, Lancaster-based Armstrong World Industries, and came away empty-handed. Armstrong spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said in an email that the company needed a request in writing and did not get one. Sandra Cooper said the company refused to turn over records at all unless she filed a workers’ compensation claim.

To read the full story, visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

International Business Times: Reporter Cole Stangler writes that federal regulators are accusing Murray Energy, a mining operator, of trying to silence and retaliate against workers who speak out about mine safety violations. For example, Stangler reported, official records note that Murray Energy “chided” 3,500 workers for making too many confidential safety complaints and threatened to close down operations in retaliation. Officials with the U.S. Department of Labor have accused the company of creating an “atmosphere of intimidation.” Stangler writes about a mandatory meeting that workers had to attend with CEO Bob Murray: “The CEO told the gathering that the coal industry is under siege and said workers should be grateful for their jobs. Another section of his presentation was more pointed: The company, which has come under fire for its safety record, is committed to working together, but miners are filing too many anonymous safety complaints with the federal government.”

Wall Street Journal: Alexandra Berzon reports that even though OSHA is increasing its penalties for the first time since the 1990s, the agency’s fines are still pretty tiny when compared to fines levied by other agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency. The penalty hike was part of the recently signed budget bill and brings OSHA’s fines in line with 25 years of inflation. (Berzon noted that OSHA was one of only a small group of agencies that was exempted from a 1990 bill the required federal agencies to ensure fines kept pace with inflation.) Not surprisingly, industry is opposed to the fine hike. Berzon reports: “Workplace-safety experts from both industry and labor said they were caught by surprise by the new mandate, which they say will likely increase maximum fines for the most severe citations to $125,000 from $70,000 and for other serious violations to $12,500 from $7,000.”

BuzzFeed News: Sapna Maheshwari reports that Urban Outfitters is the latest retailer to get rid of on-call scheduling, in which employees are required to call in before they report to work. If they’re not needed, they simply go unpaid for the time they’ve set aside in case they were called into work. BuzzFeed News got a copy of an Urban Outfitters employee handbook, which instructed workers to call in three hours before the start of on-call shifts. In a Philadelphia Daily News column about the retailer’s use of on-call scheduling, columnist Ronnie Polaneczky writes: “The unpredictability means employees can't schedule classes, if they're in school. Or go to a second job, so they can cobble together a full-time salary. Or reliably arrange child care or pay their bills, since their cost to do both remains fixed even though their working hours don't. Their only compensation, if I read the handbook correctly, is that they get to keep their jobs so you can continue to exploit their need to make a living.”

The New York Times: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is planning to create a $15 minimum wage for all state workers, which would make the state the first to set such a wage for such a large group of public workers, reported Jesse McKinley. McKinley writes that Cuomo would use his executive authority to gradually increase the hourly wage, which would reach $15 by the end of 2018. In a statement, Cuomo said: “I believe that if you work hard and work full time, you should not be condemned to live in poverty.” In related news, fast food workers went on strike across the country today to demand livable wages and the right to organize. According to USA Today reporter Paul Davidson, today’s walk-outs were the largest so far in the fast food worker movement. Davidson writes: “Already an influential political force, the workers plan to use their new-found muscle to sway local, state and national elections exactly 12 months from now and say they'll back any candidate of any party who supports their cause. The Fight for $15 group says it will hold voter registration drives and neighborhood parties to coax the workers to the polls.”

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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