Category Archives: Workers’ Compensation

Protecting Yourself At Work: What To Do If There Is An Active Shooter

Today’s older post is especially timely and comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

As an attorney who has been practicing before the New York State Workers’ Compensation Board representing injured workers for more than 27 years, I am drawn to organizations that assist workers. That’s why I am a member of the New York Committee for Occupational Safety & Health (NYCOSH), whose mission notes that every worker has the human right to a safe and healthy workplace and that workplaces injuries are often preventable. As a member, I receive many emails with various announcements regarding workplace safety, as well as statistics of injuries and deaths that occur on the job, many of which are preventable.

It is a sign of the times that on May 23, 2017, I received an email about educating workers on how to best respond in case of an active shooter. NYCOSH, along with the New York City Central Labor Council (NYCCLC), was sponsoring the event that was meant to educate participants on what actions to take to prevent and prepare for potential incidents, including what to do when an active shooter enters the workplace. Many of the cases that make front page news are mass shootings or those in the name of terrorism. Few of us can forget the Islamic extremist, who along with his wife fatally shot 14 of his co-workers at a Christmas party. Many of us go about our workday never anticipating a disgruntled employee, a client harboring a grudge, a terrorist, or a coworker intent on robbery, who may come to our workplaces with murder on their minds. When NYCOSH set out to sponsor their recent event trying to deal with a growing problem in this country, there was no way of knowing that workplace shootings would be in the national headlines three times in just two weeks. 

Last week we were shocked and appalled by the images of Republican Senators and their colleagues being shot at by a deranged person not happy with current politics. While many of our elected officials have heavy security when they are at work in the Capital’s office buildings, these members were on a ballfield early in the morning practicing for a charity baseball game taking place the next day. Despite the close proximity of the Capitol Police there to protect Steve Scalise, the current United States House of Representatives Majority Whip, five people were shot. Thankfully the sole fatality was the shooter himself.

In Orlando in early June, a disgruntled ex-employee systematically shot and killed five coworkers and then himself. A week later, a UPS employee in San Francisco walked into a UPS facility and killed three coworkers before killing himself.

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, in 2015 there were 354 homicides by shooting at the workplace. There were 307 in 2014, 322 in 2013, 381 in 2012, and 365 in 2011. Based on these statistics, it is clear that this is not an issue going away anytime soon. These are scary times and we all need to prepare for this new normal. 

While I was not able to attend the NYCOSH event, I did go to the website for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which offered these suggestions for responding when an active shooter is in your area.

  • Evacuate if you can.
  • Run as fast as you can and leave everything behind.
  • Just get out if possible.
  • If there is no accessible escape route, then hide somewhere and lock and blockade the door and silence any noise such as a radio or cell phone.
  • Lastly, if your life is in imminent danger, take action and try to incapacitate the shooter.
  • Throw things.
  • Use anything as a weapon.
  • Don’t go down without a fight.

It’s unfortunate that we even have to talk about protecting ourselves from active shooters. But in today’s day and age, we can never be too careful. As a mother, I worry for the safety of my children when they walk out the door as I’m sure many of you do as well. As a lawyer, I worry about the safety of workers every day on the job who are continually dealing with workplace injuries that could have been prevented.

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

Work-Related Falls Cause Serious Injuries And Death

“It’s not the fall that gets you” the old skydiving joke goes, “It’s the sudden stop at the bottom.” Falls are one of the greatest dangers in workers’ compensation. We fear many other perils, but more than half a million people die worldwide each year after falling. Falls are the second leading cause of death by injury, after car accidents. In the United States, falls cause over 30,000 deaths per year (more than four times the number caused by drowning and fires combined). Nearly three times as many people die in the U.S. after falling as are murdered by firearms.

As a cause of injury, falls are even more significant. More patients go to Emergency Rooms in America after falling than from any other form of accident according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Falls account for nearly three times the number of those injured by car accidents. The cost is also huge. Falls account for more than one-third of Emergency Room budgets and often lead to more expensive injury claims. 

Since falls can happen anywhere at any time to anyone, it is not surprising they are prevalent. The most dangerous spots for falls are interior settings of every day life such as supermarket aisles and stairways. Any fall can change life profoundly, taking a worker, for example, from a healthy life to a grave disability instantly.  Interestingly, scientists are now encouraging people to learn how to fall to minimize injury. Training in how to fall can actually help determine the outcome of the injury.  (The Week, September 8, 2007). Most research in the area of falls relates to “balance maintenance,” how we perform activities like standing, walking, and transferring without losing balance. Another factor in the seriousness of the injury after a fall is what condition one is in at the time of the fall. A Yale School of Medicine study ( published in The Journal of American Medical Association in 2013) found the more serious a disability one had beforehand, the more likely you will be severely hurt by a fall. Scientists studying falling are developing “safe landing” responses to help limit damage from falls. The key, apparently, is to roll and to try to let the fleshiest parts of your body absorb the impact. Young people often break their wrists because they shoot their hands out quickly when falling. Older people break their hips because they do not have their hands out quickly enough. Most scientists indicate if you are falling, protect your head first. Significant research in this are continues.

Trump Dumps Workplace Safety

When FBI Director James Comey calls President Trump a liar, the world takes notice, but when Trump lies about workplace safety, the world takes little notice.  Trump’s administration has recently provided significant “relaxation” in the government’s approach to occupational safety.  The administration recently delayed action on a rule that would require the employer to electronically report workplace injuries so they can be posted for the public.  OSHA has also put off enforcement of an Obama-era standard for silica, a mineral linked to a disabling lung disease and cancer.  I’ve dealt with many silica exposure claims in Wisconsin particularly coming from the Kohler Corporation in Kohler, Wisconsin where silica is a necessary ingredient in many bathroom fixture manufacturing processes.  The administration has also proposed changes in beryllium exposure limits.  After 40 years of development a new rule under the Obama administration was set to lower workplace exposure to beryllium a mineral linked to a lung disease estimated to kill 100 people annually.  The nation’s largest beryllium producer had agreed to back the new restrictions.  A few weeks ago as the rule was going into effect the new administration proposed changes that many expect may exempt major industries from this tougher standard. 

When asked about the Trump administration’s approach to workplace safety a White House spokesman said “The President and his administration care very much about worker safety…”  Yet another lie.  See also Under Trump, Worker Protections Are Viewed With New Skepticism

Trump’s Budget Cuts and Social Security Disability: Is “Fraud Suspicion” Underlying the Cuts?

Budget Director Mick Mulvaney echoed the mantra of many conservative Republicans who suspect that folks who are Social Security Disability recipients are fraudulent.  “If you are on disability insurance and you’re not supposed to be, you are not truly disabled, we need you to go back to work.”  This conservative trope reflects, without any evidence to substantiate it, the same kind of misinformation about employee fraud that pervades perceptions of workers’ compensation fraud. 

As I have often written about in the past, the public’s perception of injured individuals (whether collecting workers’ compensation or Social Security Disability benefits) is vastly overinflated.  The statistics indicate only about one-sixth of one percent of injured workers in Wisconsin are fraudulent.  That’s about 2 in 10,000.

The Trump administration budget proposed up to $64 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance expenditures, directly contradicting Trump’s campaign promises not to cut Social Security.  The cuts stem mostly from new program rules and processes, and requirements for mandatory participation by program applicants to move disabled beneficiaries from SSDI to work.

While returning to work is always a laudable goal (for both workers’ compensation and Social Security Disability), the last eight times that budget proposals have initiated programs to promote return to work “none of the findings reported to date show they would likely lead to a substantial reduction in case load sizes.”  http://www.researchondisability.org/docs/default-document-library/ssa-back-to-work-06-2012.pdf?sfvrsn=2

Through their contributions to Social Security, workers earn a measure of protection against disability retirement and death.  (Disability insurance protects a worker against loss of earnings due to a significant work limiting impairment, and workers earn this protection by having worked and contributed to Social Security.)  Many of my work-injured employees ultimately end up on Social Security Disability and this protection is particularly important to older Americans.  Most people receiving Social Security Disability benefits are in their 50s or early 60s and most had only unskilled or semi-skilled jobs.  Without a college degree, benefits are not significant (averaging about $1,200 per month).  However, over half of Social Security beneficiaries rely on these benefits for 75% or more of their total income. 

The proposed budget cuts to Social Security are another slap in the face to injured workers.

Opioid Task Force, Recent Studies, and CDC Opioid Recommendations

Today’s post comes from guest author Kristina Brown Thompson, from The Jernigan Law Firm, in North Carolina.

Wisconsin’s Worker’s Compensation Advisory Council is also looking at the issue of opioid use.

The North Carolina Industrial Commission recently joined many other states (i.e. Massachusetts) in tackling the issue of opioids in the workers’ compensation cases by creating a Workers’ Compensation Opioid Task Force. The goal of the task force is to “study and recommend solutions for the problems arising from the intersection of the opioid epidemic and related issues in workers’ compensation claims.” According to the Chair, “[o]pioid misuse and addiction are a major public health crisis in this state.” 

As of last June, a study by the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) noted “noticeable decreases in the amount of opioids prescribed per workers’ compensation claim.” From 2012 – 2014, “the amount of opioids received by injured workers decreased.” In particular, there were “significant reductions in the range of 20 to 31 percent” in Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Texas. 

Additionally last March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new recommendations for prescribing opioid medications for chronic pain “in response to an epidemic of prescription opioid overdose, which CDC says has been fueled by a quadrupling of sales of opioids since 1999.” 

Currently, the CDC’s recommendations for prescribing opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer, palliative, and end-of-life care will likely follow these steps:

1.  Non-medication therapy / non-opioid will be preferred for chronic pain.

2.  Before starting opioid therapy for chronic pain, clinicians should establish treatment goals and consider how therapy will be discontinued if benefits do not outweigh risks.

3.  Before starting and periodically during opioid therapy, clinicians should discuss with patients known risks and realistic benefits of opioid therapy. 

Cutting Corners Costs Lives: Non-Union Work Sites Twice As Dangerous As Union Sites

This large inflatable rat is a common sight at protests of non-union worksites in New York City.

Today’s post comes from guest author Catherine Stanton, from Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano.

As an attorney who practices in the metropolitan area, I often find myself traveling into New York City. I am amazed at the amount of construction that I see; the cityscape is changing and evolving rapidly. This construction boom means more business, a steady paycheck for workers, and more money for the city and state. Unfortunately, with the rise in construction also comes a rise in safety violations, injuries, and fatalities.

The New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) recently issued a report called Deadly Skyline regarding construction fatalities in New York State. A summary of their findings notes that from 2006 through the end of 2015, 464 construction workers died while on the job, with falls as the leading cause of death. When a fatality occurred, safety violations were inherent in more than 90 percent of the sites inspected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). The report pointed out that non-union work sites had twice the safety violations of union sites, and in 2015, 74 percent of the fatalities occurred on non-union projects with the majority of the fatalities involving Latinos.       

It is painfully obvious that shortcuts and cost-saving measures result in injury and death. Many employers use misclassification as a means to save money. Misclassification occurs when an employee is labeled as an “independent contractor” so that a business owner doesn’t need to pay Workers’ Compensation insurance, Social Security, Medicare, or unemployment taxes. Some even resort to paying employees off the books as well in an effort to save money. This may not seem troublesome until you realize that this is a one-sided deal that really only benefits the employer. According to the NYCOSH report, misclassification of workers allows an employer to skirt the safe workplace requirement as OSHA does not cover independent contractors.

Employers must provide Workers’ Compensation insurance for their employees, and typically must notify their Workers’ Comp carrier as to the number of employees they have and the type of work they do. A risk analysis is performed and then employers are assigned a premium to pay in order to cover their workers in case of injuries. If injuries occur, premiums may be increased accordingly. Obviously employers in high-risk businesses must pay more for their premiums than those with employees involved in low-risk jobs. As injuries on misclassified workers do not add to an employer’s bottom line, there is less incentive to provide safety measures if it cuts into profits.

To make construction sites safe, NYCOSH recommends adequate education and training as well as legislation to punish those whose willful negligence causes a death. They also recommend passage of the NYS Elevator Safety bill that requires the licensing of persons engaged in the design, construction, operation, inspection, maintenance, alteration, and repair of elevators. It would also preserve Section 240 of the New York Labor Law, commonly referred to as the “scaffold law,” which governs the use of scaffolding and other devices for the use of employees. Weakening the Scaffold Law would shift safety responsibility from owners and general contractors who control the site, to workers who do not control the site and are in a subordinate position.

It is a true tragedy when someone is maimed or killed in an accident that could have been prevented. Not every employer engages in these tactics, and most workplaces are generally safe spaces for workers. However, even one death is too many. 

 

 

Catherine M. Stanton is a senior partner in the law firm of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP. She focuses on the area of Workers’ Compensation, having helped thousands of injured workers navigate a highly complex system and obtain all the benefits to which they were entitled. Ms. Stanton has been honored as a New York Super Lawyer, is the past president of the New York Workers’ Compensation Bar Association, the immediate past president of the Workers’ Injury Law and Advocacy Group, and is an officer in several organizations dedicated to injured workers and their families. She can be reached at 800.692.3717.

Attorney Fees and Incentives in Workers’ Compensation

Abe Lincoln said it best “The matter of fees is important far beyond the mere question of bread and butter involved.  Properly attended to, justice is done to both lawyer and client. . . when you lack interest in the case, the job will very likely lack the skill and diligence in the performance.”

Three states have recently addressed the issue of attorney fees in workers’ compensation cases, most recently in Alabama, where an attorney fee cap of 15% on already-low benefits was found unconstitutional. It took a judge in Alabama who had been a carpenter for 15 years and then a lawyer before he took the bench, to recognize that an attorney fee cap at 15% of a $220 weekly Permanent Partial Disability benefit would not provide sufficient incentive for attorneys to be involved in workers’ compensation claims for Permanent Partial Disability in Alabama, depriving injured workers of their constitutional rights.  Judge Pat Ballard gave the legislature in Alabama four months to cure the deficiencies in the Alabama Code.

Judge Ballard found persuasive the Florida Supreme Courts reasoning in Castellanos v. Next Door Company where the Court indicated the inflexible nature of Florida attorney fee statute made that law unconstitutional.  He also agreed with the reasoning of the Utah Supreme Court, which found its workers’ compensation attorney fee caps unconstitutional.

An attorney’s determination to take a workers’ compensation case has to do with both the merits of the case and potential for recovery of attorney fees.  In Wisconsin attorneys are not paid on any portion of the medical expenses and fees are capped at 20% of the Temporary Total and Permanent Partial Disability benefits obtained for the injured worker.  In Permanent and Total Disability claims, fees are capped at ten years of benefits.  (Routinely benefits that are further offset by the injured worker’s receipt of Social Security Disability and Long Term Disability benefits.)  As Abe Lincoln indicated long ago, “When you feel you are working for something, you are sure to do your work faithfully, and well.”  (Notes to the Ohio State Law School Graduating Class of 1858.)

As Construction Jobs Increase, So Do Work Deaths

More work-related falls and fatalities have gone hand-in-hand with the rebounding construction jobs in the economy. The data in a recent journal showed a positive correlation with fall injuries and population density and construction activity. The full article, from a data report by the Center for Construction Research and Training, can be found here (PDF link).

While the article indicates the amount of construction industry jobs still have not reached pre-recession levels, the industry as a whole is rebounding. With that increase in construction activity is a coinciding increase in falls—and even deaths. As the article points out, “fall deaths in construction are more prevalent than in other major industries.”

Interestingly, according to the data, roofers, older workers, Hispanic workers, foreign-born workers, and self-employed workers had a higher risk of fatal falls than the average among all construction workers. 

Further safety efforts (and reinforcement) are necessary in the construction industry.  The base level nature of the job, however, means that some work injuries will occur. Workers’ compensation law helps protect those workers are their families.