February 28, 2013

North Carolina Workplace Injuries Must Be Tracked By Employer

Employers have until April 30 to report back to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration concerning any work-related injuries and/or illnesses staffers may have incurred during 2012. cautionwetfloor.jpg

While our Charlotte workers' compensation lawyers know that this may seem of little consequence to most employees, especially considering you may only be learning about some of these incidents many months after the fact.

However, we believe it's important to avail yourself of information regarding real situations that caused your co-workers harm, as this may help you prevent some of those same situations from causing injury again in the future.

OSHA requires that all employers with 10 or more workers and who have not been previously classified as partially exempt have to report work-related illnesses and injuries by filling out several OSHA forms. Submissions were accepted beginning Feb. 1, 2013 and are being collected through April 30, 2013.

Some examples of the exempt companies include those in historically low-hazard fields, such as insurance, real estate, finance, retail or service. A full list can be found by clicking here.

Those employers who are required to fill out accident and injury reports have to post this information or make it available to all employees. OSHA notes that all employees - past and present - are entitled to copies of that paperwork. If you request a copy of these forms, you have to be provided a copy of these records by the end of the following business day.

The types of things that are covered include:

  • All work-related fatalities;

  • All work-related illness or injuries that result in time away from work, restriction of duties, assignment to another job, medical treatment beyond first aid or loss of consciousness;

  • Any major work-related illness or injury - even if it doesn't meet the above criteria - has to be recorded;

  • These include, but aren't limited to: sprains, fractures, cuts, skin diseases, respiratory disorders or poisoning.

Treatments for illness or injury that would fall under the first-aid category of ailments (and therefore would not be reportable) include:

  • Immunizations;

  • Cleaning, soaking or flushing wounds;

  • Hot or cold therapy;

  • Bandages;

  • Eye patches;

  • Removing foreign contaminants with a cotton swab;

  • Finger guards;

  • Massage therapy;

  • Consumption of fluids for heat stress;

  • Removal of splinters;

  • Use of non-prescription strength painkillers.

That's not to say ailments treated with these methods COULDN'T be reported, but if that treatment was truly the full extent of it, it's possible you may not find out about that injury or illness.

At the end of the day, employers have a legal and ethical responsibility to provide a workplace that is free from major hazards and to adhere to local, state and federal laws and regulations applying to safety. That means giving employees the proper tools to do the work, as well as making sure employees are well-trained and aware of potential hazards. Informing workers of any failures in this regard shows good faith on the part of employers, and encourages constant evaluation and improvement.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workplace Injuries Must Be Tracked By Employer" »

February 26, 2013

Overexertion Leads to Work Injuries in Winston-Salem

We hear a lot about "overexertion" as it relates to sports or outdoor activities carried out in high temperatures.hothothot.jpg

To be sure, those things are a risk - but they aren't the only risk. Our Winston-Salem workers' compensation attorneys know that job-related overexertion is the No. 3 cause of work injuries in the U.S., accounting for some 3.3 million hospital trips each year, according to the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

In an effort to combat this, the National Safety Council has launched an awareness campaign to reduce some of the more common overexertion risk factors.

We know that overexertion affects every individual differently because even those carrying out the same tasks might have a different tolerance threshold. We must also understand that over time, even an individual's threshold is going to shift. Carrying out certain kinds of physical labor can be a lot tougher at 55 than 25.

That said, the most common overexertion injuries involve some type of sprain, particularly to the lower back. In most cases, these injuries are the result of excessive physical efforts in the form of lifting, lowering, carrying, holding, pushing, pulling and turning.

While it is up to your employer to ensure you are safe and not taking on more work than you can physically handle, it's also up to you to voice concerns when you are concerned you may be taking on too much.

OSHA has created a lift operations calculator to help workers determine how much lifting is too much lifting. Let's say you are lifting from a beginning position of knee to waist from 12 inches away. If you do six to seven of these lifts for two hours or more per day, your lifts shouldn't be more than 10 pounds if you are twisting less than 45 degrees with each lift and should be a maximum of 8.5 pounds if you are twisting more than 45 degrees at a time.

If that same amount of lifting is occurring at an above-the-shoulder angle, the weight should be no more than 7.5 pounds if you are twisting less than 45 degrees with each lift or a maximum of 6.4 pounds if you are twisting more than 45 degrees at a time.

Many workers, particularly those in construction and perhaps in certain stock retail positions, would likely find themselves over this threshold.

Lifting isn't the only problem. The NCS reports that sitting in an awkward position can put a great deal of stress on the wrong part of your body. We don't think of sitting as being a source of overexertion, but it absolutely can be if you aren't seated properly. Same goes for any type of repetitive motion.

Recognizing when you may have reached your limit is important. Insist on taking a break if you experience any of the following:

  • Painful or sore muscles;

  • Dizziness;

  • High blood pressure;

  • Sweating profusely or feeling overall very hot;

  • Nausea;

  • A heartbeat that flutters;

  • Low abdominal pain.

Alternatively, if you start to experience (or see a co-worker experiencing) shortness of breath, severe headaches, blue lips or fingers and a marked lack of coordination, stop working immediately and call 911.

Continue reading "Overexertion Leads to Work Injuries in Winston-Salem" »

February 23, 2013

North Carolina Workplace Violence a Serious Concern for All

A North Carolina State Highway Patrol trooper recently survived being shot by a suspect who fired at close range into the officer's hands, shoulder and face. The suspect, a Vermont native with a long criminal history, had been initially stopped for not wearing a seat belt. shatteredglass.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation attorneys understand that the trooper is expected to make a full recovery after undergoing at least two surgeries.

While we are happy that this trooper narrowly avoided a tragic death, sadly too many people leave for work and never come home, victims of workplace violence. It's not just police or corrections officers, either. The fact is, no one is immune. Everyone from store clerks to school teachers have faced this reality.

According to the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration, some 2 million Americans report being victims of workplace violence every year. That's considered a low estimate, as many instances are never reported.

Some of the occupational duties that may heighten the risk include:

  • Exchanging money with the public;

  • Working with unstable or volatile people;

  • Working in isolated areas or alone;

  • Providing care and services;

  • Working in establishments were alcohol is served;

  • Working at night;

  • Working in high-crime areas.

In addition to police, some of the more at-risk professions include delivery drivers, convenience store clerks, healthcare workers, public servants, customer service personnel and anyone who works in small groups or alone.

Still employer in this country should assume this is a real possibility and take appropriate measures to protect their workers.

Unfortunately, not every company takes this responsibility seriously. Recently, OSHA's Region 4 office (which also covers North Carolina) filed a lawsuit against a Florida construction company after supervisors allegedly firing a worker for reporting workplace violence. For two years, the employee reported, a supervisor had made inappropriate sexual comments and advances, behaved abusively, screamed and yelled, made physically threatening gestures and threatened to withhold the worker's paycheck. The employee implored the supervisor to stop and informed him he was creating a hostile work environment. It did not end, however, and the worker was fired.

Companies need to have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to violence. That includes not only with supervisors and among fellow workers, put also with visitors, clients, contractors, patients and anyone else with whom employees may come in contact.

Zero tolerance should include swift disciplinary action against any offenders. When those individuals are also employers, actions may include reprimands, suspension and termination.

A recent study by the FBI Academy outlined approaches to workplace violence that do NOT work. Those include:

  • Denying a problem;

  • Not communication with those involved;

  • Lack of careful vetting of job applicants;

  • Not having a clear, written policy against violence;

  • Not documenting reported incidents of previous violence;

  • Lack of a company-wide commitment to safety.

Every worker who leaves for his or her job in the morning should be able to return safely, without assault and without having suffered any form of abuse.

Here's what employers SHOULD do:

  • Have a zero-tolerance violence policy and communicate that to all employees at every level;

  • Occasionally survey workers to gauge whether there are problems or room for improvement;

  • Offer basic violence prevention training for supervisors and workers;

  • Provide a physically secure work space;

  • Periodically evaluate workplace violence prevention plans.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workplace Violence a Serious Concern for All " »

February 21, 2013

North Carolina Braces for Winter Work Hazards

A cold front has been hovering over North Carolina in recent days, causing plummeting temperatures, accumulation of ice and snow and major headaches for companies trying to ensure their workers are safe on the job. signinthesnow.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation lawyers know that most workers don't get "snow days" the way we used to as kids, so the importance of ensuring your workplace is safe in the midst of these snowstorms can't be overstated.

This is especially true in North Carolina because unlike many of our Northern neighbors, snow and ice aren't every day occurrences here, so many employers aren't as prepared for it as those who expect to deal with it on a regular basis each year.

According to the National Weather Service, approximately 7 out of 10 injuries that happen during winter storms happen on the roadways. Many of us, even if we don't drive full-time for a living, do occasionally have to head out of the office as part of our job. Keeping your vehicle road-worthy and remaining alert, free of distractions and traveling at an appropriate speed can significantly cut down the risk.

In addition to on-the-job motor vehicle accidents, U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Association reports there are numerous other ways that workers are injured during winter storms. Those include:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning;

  • Slips and falls on icy or slick walkways;

  • Roof collapse under the weight of snow;

  • Being struck by falling objects such as utility poles, tree limbs and icicles;

  • Hypothermia and/or frostbite attributed to exposure to freezing weather;

  • Falls from heights;

  • Electrocution as a result of coming in contact with downed power lines or objects that are connected to power lines;

  • Burns from fires resulting from either equipment failure or energized line contact;

  • Back injuries or heart attacks prompted by the physical stress of snow removal;

  • Exhaustion from having to work longer shifts to make up for those who were either sick, unable to make it in or simply from the storm prompting a larger work load.

It's up to each employer to carefully assess what precautions should be taken in the workplace to protect workers in the midst of a winter storm.

Employees too can be proactive in this. Keep the following in mind:

  • Wear proper footwear with decent rubber grip or treads that can help you avoid slipping on ice or snow;

  • Slow your pace while walking and take shorter steps;

  • Watch out for cars or vehicles that may have lost traction and may be sliding toward you;

  • Wear bright, reflective colors and appropriately warm clothing;

  • Recognize potential workplace hazards that could lead to cold-induced injuries or illness;

  • Avoid exhaustion by taking a break when needed;

  • When out in potentially treacherous conditions, work in pairs;

  • Stay far away from damaged or downed power lines;

  • Electrical workers should be wearing the proper safety equipment;

  • Outdoor workers use equipment that is designed to be used outdoors and in wet conditions;

  • Keep your vehicle in good working order - check your brakes, cooling system, engine, tires, exhaust oil and visibility systems.

Continue reading "North Carolina Braces for Winter Work Hazards" »

February 18, 2013

Audit: North Carolina Industrial Commission Ineffective

The North Carolina Industrial Commission was the target of scathing criticism in a report following an investigation launched by the state auditor's office recently. workerandtheexcavator.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation attorneys understand that the crux of the problem is the commission's ineffectiveness to make sure businesses obey laws that require them to carry insurance to cover potential workplace injuries. The commission is the entity responsible for deciding how and if tens of thousands of workers each year will be compensated following an on-the-job accident.

The agency's reported failure, according to the audit, essentially leaves workers without any guarantee of payment for the work they have lost, as well as the immense burden of paying hefty medical bills. Most of the time, the auditor indicated, the workers employed by these uninsured firms don't learn that they aren't covered by workers' compensation until after he or she suffers an injury and needs to file a claim.

As it now stands, the commission's current practices don't identify or track non-compliant businesses on any sort of routine basis. Businesses who violate the law in this regard are only pinpointed after someone is hurt or killed.

The report went on to say that from June 2011 through June 2012, in excess of 11,000 North Carolina businesses either cancelled their workers' compensation insurance plans or allowed them to lapse. In all, some 30,000 companies that should carry the insurance per state law actually don't.

That same year, there were approximately 65,000 workers' compensation claims filed in the state and funneled through the commission. It's unclear exactly how many of those claims involve employees whose employers don't actually have coverage.

The law mandates that any company with three or more workers has to have insurance for those workers in case someone gets injured on the job. There are exceptions, however, including domestic servants, federal government employees, farm laborers and some railroad workers.

But businesses skirting the law have little incentive to change. Until last year, the fines and penalties levied against these firms were paltry, and most of the time not collected anyway.

In 2012, the agency started increasing the financial penalties for failure to comply and it did alter a few of its policies. So from 2011 to 2012, the collective amount of the fines for non-compliance went from about $80,000 to $6.5 million. Still, the audit reports only about 2 percent of those penalties have actually been collected.

The commission says the reason for this is that payment of the fines are often put on hold until the company pays the worker what it owes in medical bills and lost wages.

The agency isn't entirely dodging responsibility, which is encouraging. Administrators say they are working to implement new policies that will allow them to spot non-compliant businesses sooner so they may issue warnings. There is also a question on the table of whether the commission should hire an outside firm to act as a bill collector for those companies that don't pay the fines in a timely manner.

Recent legislation should help. Workers' compensation insurance information now has to be shared with the North Carolina Labor Department, as well as the commission. Additionally, new bills have been introduced that would effectively make employers' insurance policies public information. Another measure proposes firing all the current commission members and instead making them governor-appointed posts.

Continue reading "Audit: North Carolina Industrial Commission Ineffective" »

February 16, 2013

Fatal Chemical Leak by SC Company Results in Federal Charges

A toxic chemical cloud billowing from an ammonia plant in Lexington County four years ago enveloped a mother of two as she drove by on her way to work - and killed her. chemicals1.jpg

Our South Carolina workers' compensation attorneys understand that in the time that has since past, both the Georgia-based transportation company and the Pennsylvania-based chemical provider have been investigated and heavily fined by the state's labor and health departments.

The transportation firm that runs the plant is now facing federal criminal charges for allegedly violating the U.S. Clean Air Act. A grand jury indicted the firm for negligently placing another person in imminent danger of death and/or serious bodily injury. Still, it's not as if anyone is likely to go to jail - the criminal misdemeanor charge carries a maximum penalty of a $500,000 fine.

According to local media reports, the leak happened when a hose blew as the chemical was being transferred from the plant into the transportation company's tanker truck. In all, some 7,000 pounds of toxic ammonia was released into the air after an incorrect type of hose was used.

Unaware of any of this, the healthcare worker driving by the plant was consumed in the cloud, and killed. Additionally, seven others were rushed to area hospitals and local officials evacuated the entire area to flee the toxic threat. The pollution actually blackened trees and other plants for hundreds of yards surrounding the plant. It was one of the worst chemical leaks ever reported in the state, following a 2005 train crash in Graniteville that resulted in a chlorine spill that killed nine people.

Officials have indicated that both companies are under federal investigation, and the plant could face charges as well. Both have blamed the error on the other. Plant officials have said they were counting on the transportation firm to use the correct hose.

Still, the state department of health has already fined the plant more than $90,000 for a number of failures with regard to emergency preparedness, in addition to another $24,000 for workplace safety violations.

It's important for all businesses to recognize the potential for chemical exposure to employees. According to Occupational Safety & Health Administration, there are some 165,000 chemicals and chemical substances used in the workplace that pose potential health risks to workers. Some of the most common are ammonia solutions, chlorine, sulfur dioxide, dihydrogen monoxide, hydrogen phosphide and propyl nitrate. These chemicals not only have the potential to burn the lungs, but they are known for dangers with regard to explosiveness, flammability or reactivity. These substances can be found in a wide range of products, from pharmaceutical to agricultural.

Most of chemical injuries or fatalities in the workplace are preventable, and could have been headed off with the use of proper safety and/or response procedures.

Companies that frequently use these dangerous chemicals have the option to invite an OSHA inspector to walk through the firm in order to identify potential hazards and make suggestions for safety procedures through the agency's free on-site consultation program.

Continue reading "Fatal Chemical Leak by SC Company Results in Federal Charges" »

February 14, 2013

North Carolina Workplace Violence a Top Concern

Last month, a gunman burst through the doors of a Greensboro lumber company, killing three and critically wounding a fourth. Authorities later found him at his home, also critically wounded from a self-inflicted gunshot, a rambling manifesto beside him. gun1.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation attorneys understand authorities soon learned that the shooter also worked at the plant. They are exploring the possibility that he may have lashed out after suffering some form of workplace harassment.

The incident unfolded at the same time the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released its 2013 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries report. The annual study analyzes the fatal workplaces injuries that occur each year in the U.S. - including those that involve violence.

What the agency discovered was that homicidal acts carried out at work overwhelmingly involved firearms - about 80 percent.

Between 2006 and 2010, an average of 550 employees were killed annually in work-related homicides. In 2010, the most recent year with available data, there were nearly 520 workplace homicides, accounting for more than 10 percent of all workplace fatalities this year. Of those, nearly 80 were multiple-fatality homicides, just like in Greensboro, where two or more people were killed.

It's also worth noting that despite the term "going postal," the vast majority of these incidents didn't involve government workers. In fact, 83 percent of these incidents occurred in private-sector businesses. About a dozen incidents occurred in schools, but that really only accounted for about 4 percent. The retail trade industry meanwhile accounted for nearly 30 percent of all fatal workplace shootings. The leisure and hospitality industry accounted for 15 percent, while transportation and warehousing accounted for 8 percent.

And again, we're only talking about those incidents that result in death. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration estimates that roughly 2 million workers suffer some form of workplace violence each year.

What all of this tells us is that situations like what happened in Greensboro last month aren't some tragic fluke. It's a serious problem that requires the careful consideration by employers to put preventative systems in place.

Some things to keep in mind when deciding what type of systems might be most effective:

  • Four out of every five workplace homicide victims are men;

  • Robbers and other assailants accounted for more than 70 percent of homicides to men, but 37 percent of those involving women;

  • Relatives or acquaintances were responsible for nearly 40 percent of workplace homicides involving women;

  • Individuals with no prior personal relationship to the victims accounted for about two-thirds of all workplace homicides.

OSHA recommends adoption of the following measures:

  • Secure the workplace. Where it may be appropriate, install video surveillance, alarm systems and extra lighting. Also, minimize access to outsiders with the use of ID badges, guards and electronic keys.

  • Set up drop safes so you limit the amount of cash on hand.

  • Offer field staff cell phones and handheld alarms and require them to keep in regular contact throughout the day.

  • Tell employees to never enter any place where they feel unsafe.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workplace Violence a Top Concern " »

February 12, 2013

NC Workplace Carbon Monoxide Concerns Heightened in Winter

Recently, a warehouse worker up north was discovered by co-workers, seizing and unconscious. Soon, several others were also sick. smokealarm.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation lawyers understand the problem was silent, invisible and odorless - carbon monoxide.

Thankfully in this case, all workers were pulled to safety and survived. But such incidents occur every year in workplaces throughout the country - particularly in winter months - and they can be fatal.

The reason we see this more during the colder season has to do with the fact that ventilation systems tend to be hampered by windows and doors that are closed tightly to conserve heat. The U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration is warning all employers and employees to take heed of how incredibly dangerous this compound is, and take decisive action to prevent it.

Carbon monoxide can be generated from numerous sources - really anything that runs on combustion. So things like gas generators, compressors, welding equipment, furnaces, space heaters, motor vehicles, gas lanterns, pumps or power tools would be examples of some of the more common sources.

Just a few years ago, in February, two concrete contractors died inside Kiddie Aerospace and Defense after collapsing from carbon monoxide poisoning. Investigators later learned the two men had sealed off the room they were working in to cut concrete - with a gas-powered saw. The levels of carbon monoxide in that room were later found to be more than 50 times what officials consider to be safe.

Despite the devastating possible consequences, most workplaces in North Carolina aren't required to install carbon monoxide detectors - probably one of the most effective and cost efficient ways of reducing the risk. Schools don't even require the devices, though the North Carolina State Building Code Council two years ago adopted a requirement to have them installed in all new residences, as well as existing homes with fuel-fired appliances, or in those with permit-required renovation work and rental properties with fossil fuel burning heaters, appliances or fireplaces or that have an attached garage.

But even when installation of these devices isn't required, they can be an incredibly worthwhile investment. You don't want to wait until your workers are suffering from severe nausea, chest pain, vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness - or worse - to discover you have a carbon monoxide problem.

In addition to detectors, companies also need to make sure they have an effective ventilation system in place - particularly in winter. Avoid using fuel-burning equipment in closed-in or partially-enclosed spaces.

Also, inform workers of what to do if they suspect they or their coworkers may be suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. This includes an action plan to get themselves and others (if it can be done safely) out immediately into fresh air, call 911 right away and administer CPR if an individual is not breathing.

While carbon monoxide poisoning can potentially happen to those in any occupation, OSHA considers the risk heightened for those in the following fields:

  • Forklift operators;

  • Toll booth attendants;

  • Firefighters;

  • Police Officers;

  • Longshore workers;

  • Taxi drivers;

  • Welders;

  • Garage mechanics;

  • Diesel engine operators;

  • Marine terminal workers;

  • Customs inspectors.

Continue reading "NC Workplace Carbon Monoxide Concerns Heightened in Winter" »

February 9, 2013

North Carolina Workplaces Do Well to Prepare for Flu Season

Flu season in North Carolina and throughout the country is in full swing, with the state Department of Health reporting an earlier-than-usual start. sorrowgirl.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation lawyers know that while the illness itself may not necessarily be considered solely a job-related concern, workers may encounter strained conditions and lapses in oversight when others are forced to stay home due to their own illness or that of a child.

Smart business owners hoping to curb productivity loss and ensure safety guidelines are maintained amid widespread absenteeism need to have an established contingency plan. It also doesn't hurt to take the time to implement procedures that could limit the spread of infection. These efforts are especially important in health care settings, where germs and viruses are already plentiful, though such action is applicable just about everywhere during flu season.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, roughly 111 million workdays are lost every single year during flu season. It's estimated that accounts for $7 billion in both lost productivity and sick days.

Workplaces generally have variant levels of risk, with healthcare employees and lab personnel being the most at risk, followed by health care transport workers and then by those who work in frequent contact with the general public, such as teachers or retail professionals. Those at lowest risk would be workplaces where general public contact is limited. Yet even in this low-risk settings, the flu can spread rapidly, as it only takes one sick person.

Officials with the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration recommend businesses follow a checklist to help them prepare and limit the spread:

  • Prepare a plan for potentially reduced workforces, one that will ensure safety guidelines will continue to be followed for those workers who remain; cross-training is one example;

  • Hammer out a sick leave policy that won't penalize sick workers for staying home. If possible, this may include expanding your firm's work-from-home options or shift-staggering;

  • Stock up on things like soap, hand sanitizers, tissues, cleaning supplies and any other recommended protective gear, and encourage employees to frequently wash their hands after using the restroom or following any physical contact with others;

  • Whenever possible and particularly in the midst of flu season, try to promote practices that will keep employees at a distance from one another and the public, such as e-mail threads or teleconferences in place of traditional in-person meetings.

Company administrators may also want to strongly consider promoting flu vaccination for workers and their families.

Employees should be mindful of all this as well, and strive to keep work surfaces and equipment clean and disinfected. Discourage others from using equipment that frequently comes in contact with your face or hands, such as your computer or phone.

Lastly, workers can minimize the impact that an illness such as the flu might have on them - and reduce their amount of leave time - by keeping themselves healthy. This includes quitting smoking, eating right, drinking enough fluids and making time for regular exercise. Employers should, whenever possible, promote these habits as well.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workplaces Do Well to Prepare for Flu Season" »

February 7, 2013

Pregnant Workers Risk Injury If Not Given Light Duty

Certain pregnancy-related ailments are now classified for employment purposes as disabilities under an amendment to the Americans With Disabilities Amendments Act, meaning employers may now have a legal responsibility responsibility to extend light-duty options to pregnant employees - an opportunity not always traditionally afforded. pregnancyclose.jpg

Our Charlotte workers' compensation lawyers know this has long been a contentious issues in workplaces and in the courts. It's often been referred to as the "light duty loophole." That is, while employers will often extend light duty assignments (meaning those that don't require strenuous physical activity, such as heavy lifting) to those workers who have been temporarily disabled as a result of job-related injuries, these same types of accommodations are not typically offered to pregnant women because pregnancy is not the result of an on-the-job injury.

This was true even when the women could provide a doctor's note, explaining why they were temporarily unable to carry out such tasks. As a result, many pregnant women are fired or forced to resign.

Of course, at its core, this is a discrimination issue for employment attorneys to sort out. But it's also a potential matter of workers' compensation. That's because pregnant women who are not afforded the opportunity to perform light duty tasks and avoid difficult physical labor have a higher risk of becoming injured as a result - particularly when that work is contrary to the recommendations of their physician.

Some of the workplace injuries to which pregnant women may be more susceptible include:

  • Muscular stress;

  • Slips and falls;

  • Sprains and strains;

  • Abdominal trauma;

  • Repetitive stress injuries;

  • Chemical exposure.

But the recently-expanded rules of the ADAAA could provide the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission better legal standing upon which to litigate the issue further and expand rights for pregnant workers.

As it stands now, the expanded ADAAA guidelines would now include certain common pregnancy-related conditions that would not have previously been covered under the light duty accommodation requirements. These would include things like gestational diabetes, sciatica, anemia and carpal tunnel syndrome.

What the EEOC wants to fight for is expanding that even further to include pregnancy in general. In the past, such arguments have not been successful.

Most recently, in Reeves v. Swift Transportation, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2006 that an employer could provide light duty accommodations for workers who had sustained job-related injuries, but were not required to do so for pregnant workers - even when their doctors had ordered restrictions on their physical activities - so long as the policy applied to all workers with on-the-job injuries.

However, the EEOC, amid the new changes to the ADAAA, have already brought at least five pregnancy-related discrimination lawsuits in the last several months, in an apparent attempt to not only protect the rights of pregnant workers, but also to bolster their safety and reduce the risk of work-related injuries.

Continue reading "Pregnant Workers Risk Injury If Not Given Light Duty" »

February 5, 2013

NC Workers' Compensation Legislation Still Brewing

State legislators in Raleigh are continuing to draft a reformed workers' compensation program that they say should cut down on fraud, waste and make it tougher for employers to skip out on paying for it when they should. safetyhelmetlogo.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation lawyers know that this could be a mixed bag, and it's tough to tell at this point whether the reforms will indeed be fair or skewed in favor of the employer, which is most often the case when politicians stark talking about fraud.

As we recently reported in our North Carolina Workers' Compensation Blog, state workers have already voiced concern that the measures proposed by the nine-member, Republican North Carolina Legislative Services Commission would ultimately reduce their benefits.

But lawmakers say that while fraud is a major concern, it's equally important to ensure that employers who are supposed to carry insurance for workers' compensation actually do so. An April 2012 expose by the News & Observer showed some 30,000 companies across the state did not pay for workers' compensation insurance when they should have - meaning their employees were unprotected in the event of a job injury. (These same businesses were also unsurprisingly found to be cutting corners on other types of insurance and their taxes, while state officials lacked the technology and resources to uncover these problems).

Lawmakers had previously instructed the North Carolina Industrial Commission, the entity responsible for handling workers' compensation claims, to tighten the purse-strings on payouts for work-related injuries. Those changes are slated to go into effect this year in April. At that point, inpatient services reimbursements are going to be slashed by 10 percent, surgery services will be cut by 15 percent and implant services reimbursements will be capped at a little less than 30 percent.

The industrial commission has also recently noted that it is working to help identify each of the businesses that are illegally skirting laws mandating workers' compensation insurance coverage. It is working on creating an automated database, but that could be a ways off. Ultimately, the commission has said it wants to catch businesses that may be misrepresenting the scope of their work in order to sidestep requirements to buy injury insurance for their workers, as well as paying certain taxes.

In order to help reach this goal, some of the measures that the legislative services commission plans to introduce includes:

  • A law that would make employers' workers' compensation coverage information public once again;

  • A law that would compel certain state agencies that maintain business records to turn those records over to the state controller in order for them to be reviewed for potential fraud;

  • A law that would provide instruction for a study that would determine ways to cut both the number of individual workers' compensation claims, as well as the dollar amounts paid on each individual claim.

That last measure in particular is concerning to us, and illustrates to you why it's critical to hire an experienced workers' compensation lawyer to handle your claim and ensure you receive the reimbursement you deserve.

Continue reading "NC Workers' Compensation Legislation Still Brewing" »

February 2, 2013

Fatal South Carolina Work Accident Raises Questions About Adequate Training, Emergency Response

The widow and cousin of a man killed in a South Carolina work accident at a York County paper plant have alleged that the training new employees received was inadequate and the emergency response was lacking. oldpaperroll.jpg

Our Rock Hill workers' compensation attorneys understand that this particular manufacturer has a history of serious and fatal work-related accidents over the last several years.

The 39-year-old North Carolina father's family has yet to file a lawsuit, but it's believed they intend to do so.

In this case, according to numerous news agencies, the worker, along with his cousin, were hired as contractors to do maintenance and cleaning on an aging, decommissioned, 40-foot fume tank that was located outside the primary production area. They were working third shift at the time of the incident. Investigators are still trying to piece together exactly how events unfolded, but preliminary evidence suggests that at some point, a chemical leaked into the tank while the men were inside, shortly after 1 a.m.

It's unclear at this point what that chemical was or what may have malfunctioned, but the worker's cousin and another man working inside scrambled to make an escape. The other employee was able to make it out, as was the cousin. However, the victim was dangling inside by a harness, and the other two were unable to pull him out. He was trapped.

The cousin later told reporters that when he rushed to the onsite safety supervisor to inform him of the situation, no one had a sense of real urgency in responding.

Perhaps even more troubling, the cousin called his wife to the scene. When she arrived, she said she could see her husband suspended inside the tank - yet emergency crews were parked outside, not in the factory trying to help him. County safety officials say protocol was properly followed, as workers could not get in to help the worker until the situation was safe for emergency personnel.

All three workers were reportedly wearing the proper protective equipment, but the cousin is also alleging that the contractors were not given proper training prior to being assigned to do the work. He said there was a perfunctory, 15-minute training video they were asked to watch, followed by a short quiz - to which the instructors provided the answers. The workers were on the job less than 12 hours later. He is likely right in his assertion that this was not enough to prepare them for what unfolded.

The company has called the situation an "unfortunate accident." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation, and toxicology reports are pending from the autopsy.

Last spring at this same site, one man was critically burned and three others seriously hurt when a chemical leak erupted in pulping area of the factory. And in 2000, another two workers died during an explosion at the plant.

While one safety shortfall doesn't necessarily prove another, it does often seem to highlight a trend. Companies or supervisors that have proven lax in some areas may well be seen not applying proper procedure in others. This is ultimately the company's job to correct, but it's also important for workers who see potential hazards to speak up as well.

Continue reading "Fatal South Carolina Work Accident Raises Questions About Adequate Training, Emergency Response" »

January 29, 2013

North Carolina Workers' Compensation Study May End in Fewer Benefits

Last month, the North Carolina's Legislative Services Commission's nine Republican members launched a study into the state's workers' compensation program, and the results are due to be released late next month. darkdollar.jpg

Our Charlotte workers' compensation lawyers know that what makes this of particular concern is that the members, set on reducing government spending, could ultimately use those findings as a way to cut state worker wages and slash critical benefits to those who have suffered on-the-job injuries.

Let's be clear here: We're not talking about milking the system, though that's the kind of language some conservative leaders use when talking about reductions. What we're talking about is workers who were gainfully employed, earning an honest wage to provide for their families and who have suffered an injury during the course of that work. In many cases, the factors that contributed to those injuries were beyond the control of the employee, having more to do with a lack of manager oversight or even employer negligence.

State workers are expressing significant concern given the fact that North Carolina is considered to be among the least union-friendly states in the country. The UE Local 150 has about 3,000 members (accounting for about 3 percent of state workers) and the State Employees Association of North Carolina has about 55,000 workers. Still, we are one of only two states in the entire country to prohibit collective bargaining for public workers. What this means is that workers are unlikely to get much say at all in the final decision.

Even so, some union leaders are expressing an even greater concern about the possible elimination of longevity pay in favor of a merit-based system. In theory, it sounds like a good idea: workers are paid based on their performance rather than the amount of time they've been employed. The problem historically is that such a system has led to well-documented instances of racism and favoritism.

Such measures could ultimately lead to a so-called "brain drain" in which the best young qualified workers seek state government work outside of North Carolina or in the private sector. Already, a report released in the spring of last year showed that state employees hadn't had cost-of-living adjustments for the last five years. They did receive a 6.75 percent wage during that time frame, but that failed to keep the pace with the 11 percent spike in the cost of living.

This only makes it harder when workers do suffer a work-related injury. Living paycheck-to-paycheck, they haven't had as much of an opportunity to set aside an adequate savings to prepare for emergencies. That means when an injury occurs, workers' compensation is even more important.

Particularly in fields where occupational hazards are already an issue, this is inviting tragedy.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workers' Compensation Study May End in Fewer Benefits" »

January 25, 2013

Railway Company Signs OSHA Agreement to Improve Worker Protections

The kinds of work-related injuries suffered by railroad workers in North Carolina and South Carolina are often very serious, debilitating injuries. railroadcrossing.jpg

And they continue to occur all too frequently. Our Charlotte workers' compensation attorneys understand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has since 1993 listed railroad worker injuries as being double and even triple the rate of those in the general population. Most commonly, these involve transportation accidents and collisions, falls and electrocutions.

The deadly nature of the job in both North and South Carolina is part of the reason why our lawyers are taking note of the agreement signed by Texas-based railroad giant, BNSF Railway Co., as a result of a push by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The federal agency pressed for the agreement after taking on more than 1,200 Federal Railroad Safety Act complaints between Aug. 2007 and September 2012. This number of whistelblower complaints was unprecedented, and more than 60 percent of those involved allegations that retaliatory action had been taken against a railroad worker who reported a job-related injury.

That doesn't just involve BNSF, of course, but this company was reportedly one of the most egregious violators.

The FRSA, as defined under 49 U.S.C. 20109, protects a railroad worker from negative consequences, such as reprimand, suspension, demotion or termination, for providing information about what he or she reasonably believes may be a violation of federal law or a threat to public or worker safety. The law also prohibits companies from denying or delaying medical attention to a worker in the event of an on-the-job injury.

At BSNF, it was reportedly routine for the company to extend an employee's probationary period at least partially on the basis of any injuries he or she suffered during their initial hiring. Additionally, the company had established a point system for workers who had been injured, and dozens of workers were retaliated against for reporting injuries and/or safety concerns.

The agreement signed by company leaders has several outcomes, including:

  • The implementation of a legal review process when a worker who has suffered an injury or reports a safety hazard is subsequently disciplined;

  • The adoption of increased training measures for managers, labor relations officials and human resources administrators regarding FRSA, with the requirement that supervisors acquire annual certification on that training.

  • Eliminates the policy that tied probationary lengths to injuries sustained during that time, a move that effectively resulted in nearly 140 workers being immediately removed from probation;

  • Offered a settlement to nearly 40 workers who had filed OSHA whistleblower complaints as a result of the company's injury-related policies.

Under federal guidelines, there are 22 statutes that are enforced by OSHA and designed to protect workers. FRSA is one, and others include vehicle, airlines, pipeline, environmental, nuclear, public transportation, maritime, securities, food safety, consumer finances, consumer products and health care. It's worth noting that of these, FRSA complaints regarding railroad injury and retaliation rank #2.

Continue reading "Railway Company Signs OSHA Agreement to Improve Worker Protections" »

January 21, 2013

North Carolina Workers' Compensation For Phone-Related Crashes

The National Safety Council is urging employers to enact policies to reduce their liability with regard to workers who use cell phones while driving. smoothandgrainy.jpg

Our North Carolina workers' compensation lawyers know that the state already has a ban on texting while driving.

But even these laws may not eliminate employer liability for cell-phone related crashes involving workers, particularly if employers are expecting their employers to remain in constant contact with supervisors while on the road.

It's estimated that one-quarter of all crashes everywhere in the country involve distracted drivers, with a large number of those instances attributed to cell phone usage. The NSC notes that employers that don't have a specific policy in place that bars employees from using cell phones while operating a motor vehicle have exposed their workers to the potential for injuries and their company to the potential for liability.

Vehicle crashes in general are the No. 1 cause of work-related deaths in the country, accounting for about 25 percent of all fatalities. For employers, employee crashes are expensive, costing on average about $25,000 in property damage and $150,000 for injuries per crash.

That's why the NCS is hosting two different seminars to serve as informational guides on prevention. The agency has also released promotional materials to employers in other parts of the country on reducing liability.

A total ban on cell phones by an employer would ideally cover:

  • All employees;

  • All company vehicles;

  • All company cell phones'

  • Both handheld and hands-free devices;

  • All work-related communications, even on personal phones and in personal vehicles.

There is ample evidence for why this is so important. The NSC cites a case in 2010 in which a young woman and her elderly mother were stopped at an intersection on a rural road when a cable company pickup truck careened toward them at 70 miles per hour. Upon impact, the two women died instantly. The cable truck driver told authorities he had been texting prior to the crash, his vehicle operating on cruise control.

As the NCS notes, even when employee drivers are abiding by state laws, these measures often constitute the minimum actions required. As a result, employers are encouraged by the NCS to exceed those regulations with their own internal policies.

Even in cases where a company doesn't own the car or the cell phone, it may still be held liable for worker injuries or fatalities that occur as a result of work-related, in-vehicle calls. In particular, companies that encourage in-vehicle cell phone use by employees risk increased liability. This is especially true given the fact that there has been an increased awareness of the issue in the public at-large. Employers can no longer claim ignorance on the issue. In fact, failure to have such a policy could be deemed as reckless or even grossly negligent.

Workers employed at such firms should take their safety concerns to supervisors or a human relations administrator, and document those encounters and responses.

Continue reading "North Carolina Workers' Compensation For Phone-Related Crashes" »