Author Archives: Charlie Domer

Work-Related Death in Milwaukee

Another sad day at a Wisconsin workplace.  The news came out that a worker was killed in a traumatic incident at a major Wisconsin employer: Oak Creek man killed in Caterpillar accident.

Such tragedies are becoming more and more common in Wisconsin and around the country.  Recent statistics  show that workplace deaths are rising with every passing year.

In Wisconsin, “death benefits” under the Worker’s Compensation Act are payable to a deceased worker’s dependents.  If an injury kills a worker, a surviving dependent is entitled to a death benefit that is equal to four (4) times the worker’s annual wages.  A “dependent” generally is a spouse living with the deceased at the time of death, or if there is no live-in spouse, any children under the age of 18.   If there is no live-in spouse or minor children, other family members could bring claims for partial dependency benefits.

Most of these tragic claims are accepted and paid without question, but disputes might arise (requiring attorney involvement) when family connections are involved.

Funeral and burial expenses (up to $10,000) should also be paid by worker’s compensation.

 

Workers’ Memorial Day…and the Decline in Worker Safety

Last week (April 28) was Workers’ Memorial Day, remembering and honoring all those workers who have been injured or killed in the workplace.  While we’ve come a long way in our country toward protecting workers, current politics and politicians are actively working to undermine a century of progress.

I encourage everyone to read the following informative post on the current statistics of workplace injuries and the effort to encourage less protection for workers: The Health and Safety of America’s Workers Is At Risk.  

The author, Kathleen Rest, provided a detailed list of the Trump administrations intention on “rolling back public protections and prioritizing industry over the public interest”:

  • Right off the bat, the president issued his two-for-one executive order requiring agencies to rescind two regulations for each new one they propose. So, to enact new worker health and safety protections, two others would have to go.

  • OSHA has delayed implementation or enforcement of several worker protection rules that address serious health risks and were years in the making—i.e., silica, the cause of an irreversible and debilitating lung disease, and beryllium, a carcinogen and also the source of a devastating lung disease.

  • OSHA has left five advisory and committees to languish—the Advisory Committee on Construction Safety and Health; the Whistleblower Protection Advisory Committee; the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health; the Federal Advisory Council; and the Maritime Advisory Committee—thus depriving the agency of advice from independent experts and key stakeholders. Earlier this week, a number of groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, sent a letter to Secretary of Labor Acosta asking him to stop sidelining the advice of independent experts.

  • President Trump signed a resolution that permanently removed the ability of OSHA to cite employers with a pattern of record keeping violations related to workplace injuries and illnesses. Yes, permanently, because it was passed under the Congressional Review Act. And Secretary Acosta recently seemed hesitant to commit not to rescind OSHA’s rule to improve electronic recordkeeping of work-related injuries and illnesses.

  • Having failed in efforts to cut some worker health and safety protections and research in his FY18 budget proposal, the president is going at it again with his FY19 proposal. He is calling for the elimination of the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board and OSHA’s worker safety and health training program, Susan Harwood Training Grants. There is, however, a tiny bit of good news for workers in President Trump’s proposed budget for OSHA; it includes a small (2.4 percent) increase for enforcement, as well as a 4.2 percent increase for compliance assistance. Of note, employers much prefer compliance assistance over enforcement activities.

  • The president’s budget also proposes to cut research by 40 percent at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—the only federal agency solely devoted to research on worker health and safety—and eliminate the agency’s educational research centers, agriculture, forestry and fishing research centers and external research programs.

  • He has also proposed taking NIOSH out of CDC, perhaps combining it later with various parts of the National Institutes of Health. Never mind that NIOSH was established by statute as an entity by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.

  • The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has also jumped on the regulatory reform bandwagon. The agency has indicated its intent to review and evaluate its regulations protecting coal miners from black lung disease. This at a time when NIOSH has identified the largest cluster of black lung disease ever reported.

  • EPA actions are also putting workers at risk. Late last year, the EPA announced that it will revise crucial protections for more than two million farmworkers and pesticide applicators, including reconsidering the minimum age requirements for applying these toxic chemicals. Earlier in the year, the agency overruled its own scientists when it decided not to ban the pesticide chlorpyrifos, thus perpetuating its serious risk to farmworkers, not to mention their children and users of rural drinking water. And the agency has delayed implementation of its Risk Management Plan rule to prevent chemical accidents for nearly two years.

  • The Department of Interior is following up on an order from President Trump to re-evaluate regulations put into place by the Obama administration in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident in 2010, which killed 11 offshore workers and created the largest marine oil spill in United States’ drilling history.

  • And then there’s a new proposal at the U.S. Department of Agriculture that seeks to privatize the pork inspection system and remove any maximum limits on line speeds in pig slaughter plants. Meat packing workers in pork slaughter houses already have higher injury and illness rates than the national average. Increasing line speeds only increases their risk.


Scary times.  I fear we may be remembering more and more injured workers moving forward.

Center for Progressive Reform Launches National Database of Crimes Against Workers

Today’s post comes from guest author Paul J. McAndrew, Jr., from Paul McAndrew Law Firm.

Every year are a few work-fatalities that garner criminal prosecution and conviction. This is out the thousands of work-fatalities that occur every year. Until now, there’s been no one keeping a record of these fatality-causing events.

Now, the Center for Progressive Reform’s (CPR) Katie Tracy has reviewed court records, investigation files, and news stories to identify them many of them. After assembling information on more than 75 criminal cases from 17 states, she knew it was time to share all of it.

The result is CPR’s user friendly and publicly-available at Crimes Against Workers Database. I encourage you to explore this valuable tool. We believe that the awareness caused by sharing this information nationally can be a catalyst for legislators and others to understand the scope and scale of these crimes.

Temporary Help Employees Can Sue Their Employers?!

Temporary Help Employees Can Sue Their Employers? …. Well, maybe not.

The Wisconsin Court of Appeals considered the following issue: can a temporary help employee who was injured at work elect not to pursue a worker’s compensation claim and, instead, actually sue their employer in civil court?  The Court said the answer is “YES.”  

Wait….what?!  That is not how the worker’s compensation system was supposed to work.  Cue panic mode for employers who used temporary help employees.  (or at least until the legislature “fixed” this).

The necessary background (and backbone) of the worker’s compensation system is the 100+ year old “grand bargain” between employers and employees.  Employers agreed to provide smaller, defined benefits regardless of fault for the work injury, while employees gave up the right to tort damages (like pain and suffering) in exchange for those benefits.   Thus, worker’s compensation became the worker’s exclusive remedy against the employer.  A worker cannot sue their employer (or co-worker) for a work injury.

That exclusive remedy also extends to temporary help agency situations.  Under the traditional interpretation of the worker’s compensation act, a temporary help employee is barred from any tort lawsuit against their employing temporary help agency and against the employer where they were placed/working.   This was the interpretation…or so we thought.

In Estate of Carlos Esterley Cerrato Rivera v. West Bend Mutual Ins Co., the Court of Appeals allowed a temporary help employee’s tort lawsuit to proceed against the placed employer.  The case arose from tragic and slightly convoluted facts.  Three temporary help employees all died in a motor vehicle accident.  All three were driving in the same car and performing services for Alpine Insulation (insured by West Bend Mutual).  Mr. Rivera was a temporary help employee of Alex Drywall, who sent him to work for Alpine Insulation.  Alpine, in turn, paid Alex Drywall for the services.  The driver, whose negligence resulted in the accident, was also a temporary help employee, but of another employer.

Mr. Rivera’s estate did not pursue a claim for worker’s compensation death benefits.  The estate instead sued the placed employer, Alpine Insulation, in circuit court for tort damages.   Alpine and West Bend Mutual argued that the work comp exclusive remedy protects them from these types of lawsuits.

[Note: the facts are unclear about whether there was an “election” not to pursue a work comp claim.  There could have been difficulties by the work comp carrier in determining if there were any eligible surviving dependents.  There also could have been issues involving establishing the employment relationship with Alex Drywall.  This is mere speculation, but it is interesting to think about how the case genesis]

The Court of Appeals interpreted the relevant statutes to allow the tort suit to proceed!  Specifically, Section 102.29(6)(b)1. says that “no employee of a temporary help agency who makes a claim for compensation may make a claim … in tort against … any employer that compensates the temporary help agency for the employee’s services.”   The Court ruled that because Rivera’s estate had never pursued a worker’s compensation claim, the statute actually allowed the tort suit.

Based on the immediate outrage and backlash in the employer community (and specifically the massive amount of employers who use temporary help employees), the Wisconsin legislature moved swiftly to “fix” this perceived loophole in the law.   The legislature passed 2017 Wisconsin Act 139 (effective March 1, 2018). The Act amended the governing statutes in Section 102.29 to now state that “no employee of a temporary help agency who has the right to make a claim for compensation may make a claim … in tort against … any employer that compensates the temporary help agency for the employee’s services.”  

Accordingly, for a fleeting moment, it appeared injured temporary help employees could elect to forego a work comp claim and maintain a civil lawsuit against their placed employers for pain and suffering.   The legislature effectively restored and reiterated the exclusive remedy provision in temporary help agency situations.  If a temporary help employee is injured on the job, worker’s compensation remains their only recourse against the temporary help employer and their placed employer.

“Independent” (or are they “Adverse”!) Medical Examinations

Don’t get mad…get an attorney.

Was your worker’s compensation claim just denied by an “independent” medical evaluator?  You are not alone.

Following a work injury, the insurance company legally can require the injured worker’s attendance with an independent medical evaluator, or IME.  The IME doctor is not the worker’s doctor, and the worker does not have to agree with the doctor.  The problem, however, is that many IME doctors disagree with the causation opinion of the treating physician, and then the IME opinion effectively serves as the default legal opinion until the case either goes to court or is settled.   That means that the insurance company’s hired doctor can be used to cut off a worker’s benefits–forcing the case into litigation.

If the treating physician disagrees with the IME report, a worker should consult with an attorney to dispute the IME denial.  After all, the IME is hired by the insurance company.

A recent in-depth article pointed out the potential for bias by insurance company-hired IMEs: Long-time judge: Some ‘independent’ doctors routinely rule against injured workers.  For many in the work comp world, a more appropriate term for these hired doctors is adverse medical examination.  Certainly that is not true of all IMEs, but some physicians–especially those who are not actively seeing patients–seem to curry favor with the insurance company by denying a worker’s medical claim.

When the insurance company doctor disputes a claim, the injured worker needs their own treating doctor and their attorney to push back against the IME denial.

 

Limits on Medical Treatment Options for Injured Workers?

Doctor choice.  And choice of treatment.  The Wisconsin way.

Unlike systems in other states, an injured worker in Wisconsin has access to their own doctor and what that doctor recommends for medical care.  Wisconsin does not have specific directed care or a panel of worker’s compensation doctors. The choice of medical care and experienced practitioners produces some of the fastest return to work rates in the country, along with low costs per claim.

The only “limit” is the “two doctor rule,” where a Wisconsin injured worker has the right to see their own doctor or to get a second opinion from another doctor.  While any doctor beyond the “two doctor” limit would be excluded from coverage (unless mutually agreed to by the work comp carrier), a worker has the right to see any doctor that is part of the referral chain from the two doctors–making doctor choice virtually unlimited if the worker obtains an appropriate referral!

The recommended medical care should be covered by the work comp carrier is reasonable and necessary to cure from the effects of an injury.  Unless the insurance company has a contrary medical opinion (through an adverse, or “independent” medical evaluator), they generally are responsible for the medical treatment recommended, whether that is therapy, office visits, prescriptions, injections, surgery, etc. 

Other states place limits on the type of treatment a worker can receive.  A recent article revealed that Ohio legislators are limiting when injured workers can have certain prescription medications or surgery (Ohio Imposes Strict Rule on Workers’ Back Surgery, Opioids).  Ohio is required a worker undergo 60 days of “alternative care”, potentially without opiate use, before having a work-related back surgery.

To date, Wisconsin’s legislature preferred the medical expertise of its physicians and their treatment recommendations.  Relying on experienced, quality medical practitioners allows workers swift access to the necessary medical care and recommendations–and puts them back in the workplace fast!

 

Occupational Skin Diseases

Today’s post comes from guest author Anthony L. Lucas, from The Jernigan Law Firm.

In Wisconsin, if a worker suffers an occupational skin disease resulting in a permanent sensitization with loss of job or income, there is a chance to pursue a loss of earning capacity claim.

Occupational skin diseases are one of the most common occupational diseases. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health estimates that in the United States more than 13 million workers are potentially exposed to chemicals that can be absorbed through their skin. In 2015, the last year for which data is available, over 15% of the reported occupational diseases were skin diseases.

 

These diseases include, but are not limited to, contact dermatitis (eczema), allergic dermatitis, skin cancers, and infections. Contact dermatitis, which has symptoms of painful and itchy skin, blisters, redness, and swelling, is the most commonly reported occupational skin disease. Workers in food service, cosmetology, health care, agriculture, cleaning, painting, mechanics, and construction industries and sectors are at risk of developing these diseases.

 

This type of occupational disease is clearly preventable. To control and prevent exposure to chemicals that cause occupational skin diseases, OSHA recommends that employers switch to less toxic chemicals, redesign the work process to avoid the splashes or immersion, and have employees wear protective gloves and clothing.

Steel company fined $115,400 by US Labor Department’s OSHA for failing to abate workplace hazards

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman, from Jon L Gelman LLC.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Jersey Shore Steel for four violations, including three failure-to-abate citations, at its Jackson facility. Proposed penalties total $115,400 after OSHA’s follow-up inspection opened in April.

“By not abating past violations, Jersey Shore Steel keeps its employees vulnerable to hazards that can cause injuries and, possibly, death,” said Paula Dixon-Roderick, director of OSHA’s Marlton Area Office. “It’s vital to correct all hazards immediately to protect workers at the facility.”

The failure-to-abate notices, which carry $111,000 in penalties, relate to the company’s failure to develop and implement a written lockout/tagout program that prevents inadvertent machine start-up; require fork truck operators to have their performance evaluated at least once every three years; and train workers to use portable fire extinguishers. A failure-to-abate notice applies to a condition, hazard or practice, found upon reinspection, that the employer was originally cited for and failed to correct.

The company was also cited for one repeat violation, with a $4,400 penalty, due to the lack of machine guarding on a press brake. A repeat violation exists when an employer previously has been cited for the same or a similar violation of a standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years. A similar violation was cited in November 2012.

The citations can be viewed at: http://www.osha.gov/ooc/citations/jersey_shore_steel_insp_900106_sept30.pdf*.

Jersey Shore Steel has requested an informal conference with the OSHA area director in Marlton.