Category Archives: Workplace Safety

Tragic Cannery And Construction Site Deaths Highlight Need For Safety Enforcement

I was horrified when I recently read about a worker for a tuna company who was killed when he was cooked to death at the company’s California canning factory. According to the New York Daily News, the worker, Jose Melena, was performing maintenance in the 35-foot oven when a co-worker failed to notice he was still in the oven and turned it on to begin the steaming process of the tuna. The co-worker assumed Melena had gone to the bathroom. 

While there apparently was an effort to locate the worker, his body was not found until two hours later when the steamer was opened after it completed its cooking cycle. As an attorney, my clinical instinct shifts my focus to the mechanics of the accident and to fault. There are so many unanswered questions.  Why didn’t anyone check the machine before it was turned on? Why wasn’t the machine immediately shut down when they realized the worker was missing? As a person with feelings and emotions, I think of the horror and pain he must have gone through and the loss experienced by his family and friends as a result of his death. It is almost too awful to imagine. 

While this terrible tragedy occurred in 2012, it appears the reason that the story is currently newsworthy is that the managers were only recently charged by prosecutors in the worker’s death for violating Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) rules. Closer to home, more recent and just as unfortunate were the cases of the construction worker in Brooklyn who fell six stories from a scaffold while doing concrete work and a restaurant worker who was killed in Manhattan when a gas explosion destroyed the building he was working in. 

These stories highlight why safety procedures are so important. In some cases, there are no proper safety precautions in place. In others, there are safety measures in place but they may not have been followed. In rarer cases, crimes are committed that result in workplace fatalities. The failure to follow or implement proper safety procedures was a calculated risk, a terrible misstep, or a downright criminal act. In the case of the worker who died when he fell from a scaffold, there has been speculation that he may not have been attached properly to his safety harness. In the tuna factory death, the managers were charged with violating safety regulations; they face fines as well as jail time for their acts. In the gas explosion, there are allegations that the explosion was caused by workers’ illegally tapping into the restaurant gas line to provide heat for upstairs tenants. Prosecutors were trying to determine criminality; whatever the final outcomes, it appears that in these three instances the deaths were preventable. 

According to OSHA rules, employers have the responsibility to provide a safe workplace. They must provide their employees with a workplace free of serious hazards and follow all safety and health standards. They must provide training, keep accurate records, and as of January 1, 2015, notify OSHA within eight hours of a workplace fatality or within 24 hours of any work-related impatient hospitalization, amputation or loss of an eye.  

While this may seem like a small step, anything that results in creating higher standards for employers or encouraging them to keep safety a priority is always a good thing. These three examples are only a small percentage of the workplace deaths that occur each year. While not every death is preventable, everyone is entitled to go to work and expect to leave safely at the end of their shifts.  

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.

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Sick Leave Should Be Accessible to All

Today’s post comes from guest author Emily Wray Stander, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Amid the debate about flu and immunizations and preventable diseases lurks a societal problem that’s getting more attention lately and directly affects the spread of those medical crises: paid sick leave for employees.

Although discussing the consequences of Ebola may be interesting, many people in the United States, including Nebraska and Iowa, are living with the consequences of pertussis (whooping cough), a rampant flu season, and measles outbreaks.

This blog has featured this subject in the past, almost exactly two years ago, when there was a flu epidemic. It was argued then, in one of the firm’s more popular blog posts, that sick people should not be forced to work and spread their germs to their co-workers and customers, in addition that working while sick tends to make people even more ill. Not having sick leave available to take becomes a public health and societal risk. In addition, not being able to provide care for sick children or loved ones results in family struggles and workers worrying, rightfully so, while they should be focused on work at work.

The issue is also affecting children, especially those who are low-income, according to the 2014 Kids Count Report in Nebraska.

A recent Marketplace Morning Report article highlighted the need for policy change through the Healthy Families Act “that would guarantee workers could earn up to seven days of paid sick leave per year.” For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is quoted in the story that “24 percent” of those in the restaurant industry and “47 percent of retail workers get paid sick leave.” It also shares the economic burden of the results of people who don’t get paid sick leave coming to work sick. “Underperforming at work, or even damaging equipment or products because of diminished capacity or the effects of medication is known as ‘presenteeism.’” Sickness and presenteeism costs more than $375 billion a year, according to the article.

Esther Cepeda also recently addressed both paid sick leave and presenteeism in a column: “Working while sick even when you can have the time off is a thing. Many workers take great pride in coming to work ill, and there are a fair number of their colleagues who wish they’d stop.”

Although it may be a pretty big challenge in some industries to provide paid sick time, Ms. Cepeda argues that those are the most important industries to have it, as was also argued in the firm’s flu blog post from 2013.

“Food service aside, there are any number of jobs – most of them low-wage, part-time service jobs – where you don’t want the worker to be miserably sick or mentally checked out, worried about their sick loved one, because they can’t afford to call off work and lose the pay or possibly the job.”

Also important to note, being “checked out” can lead to safety incidents and workers’ compensation claims, and having employees mired in presenteeism just isn’t good for anyone.

So as the article in this link mentions, I think it’s very important for both workers and employers to consider the importance of quality of life considerations: keeping healthy people from being exposed to sickness and supporting sick people (or people with sick loved ones) by giving them the chance to stay home and still get paid so they can focus on becoming healthy people again.

Because as Ms. Cepeda argues, it benefits all for people to be as healthy as possible.

“Those of us who have the choice or flexibility to take an available sick day must speak up for those who are penalized for life’s inevitable speed bumps. It’s ultimately in our own best interest.”

Issue is also affecting children:  Report: Nebraskans working hard, but falling behind — and kids are paying the price

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Measuring Our Progress Since The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

As an attorney who practices in the field of Workers’ Compensation, there are some events that are seminal in the history of workplace safety. One of those events was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, which occurred on March 25, 2011. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the largest factories in New York and employed 500 mostly Italian and Jewish immigrant women between the ages of 13 and 23.

These women worked long hours for low wages in this cramped sweatshop at sewing machines to produce women’s blouses, known in those days as shirtwaists. In order to protect themselves from their claim of thefts by the workers, the factory owners would lock the doors to one of the stairways leading to the street. While the union movement in New York was very strong and some of the workers had joined the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, the factory itself was a non-union shop; many believed the owners would lock their doors to keep organizers out. Whatever the reason, locking those doors had devastating effects. 

On that fateful day in March, a fire broke out that was fueled by thousands of pounds of fabric. Many were able to escape to the roof and then to adjoining buildings. Unfortunately for those on the ninth floor, there was very little means of escape. The elevator proved inadequate as it was only able to accommodate 12 people at a time, and the operator was only able to make four trips before it broke down totally. Bodies of many of the workers were found at the bottom of locked stairwells or in the elevator shaft when they tried to escape. The fire escape was flimsy and when it became overloaded with panicked women, it broke and sent dozens to their death. Those trapped in the factory by the fire were left with the agonizing choice of jumping to their deaths or being burned alive. Many chose to jump. Bystanders recounted stories of seeing victims kiss each other or hold hands as they jumped two and three at a time; they described the horrific thud as bodies landed on the stone streets below. When the final tally was taken, 146 people had perished. The catastrophe sent shockwaves throughout New York City and the immigrant communities of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where families struggled to recognize the charred remains of their loved ones in makeshift morgues. 

On March 24, 1911, the New York Court of Appeals declared the state’s compulsory Workers’ Compensation law unconstitutional. The next day, 146 people were dead from that Triangle Shirtwaist fire. With no Workers’ Compensation system in place, family members and dependents had to turn to the courts in an attempt to force Triangle to compensate the injured and the families of the deceased. A civil suit brought by 23 victims’ families against the owners netted a whopping $75 in damages per victim! New Yorkers were appalled and angry at the greed and negligence of the owners and managers. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire was a preventable tragedy caused by unsafe work conditions and was a catalyst for change. New York finally adopted a Workers’ Compensation law in 1913. This law was intended to protect workers from unsafe working conditions and afford them with wage replacement benefits and medical treatment in exchange for giving up their right to sue. Unfortunately, we see an erosion of many of these benefits under the guise of reform, while insurance companies have made record profits. This month, while we acknowledge this grim anniversary, we need to make sure that these women’s deaths were not in vain. Let us never forget the reason Workers’ Compensation laws were enacted, and let’s be sure the system is not watered down to the point that injured workers and their families go back to getting $75 for a preventable death.

  

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. 

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Best Ways To Protect Yourself From Common Workplace Injuries

Last week marked the 25th anniversary of Workers’ Memorial Day – a day set aside to remember those who were injured or died on the job. President Barack Obama issued a proclamation in which he noted “we must never accept that injury, illness, or death is the cost of doing business.”  While we have come a long way from the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in which 146 workers were killed while trapped inside a garment factory due to locked doors and a collapsed fire escape, it is clear that we haven’t come far enough.

Recently, the New York Committee for Occupational Safety and Health (NYCOSH) issued a report on Workplace Safety in the Construction Industry. The report was frightening. Just last year alone, 23 construction workers were killed while performing their jobs. According to the NYCOSH report, many of these construction deaths could have been prevented had proper safety precautions been taken. The report noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), established by the U.S. Congress to enforce safety practices, is understaffed, thereby leaving many worksites uninspected. Also, penalties for infractions are far too low to deter some employers from not implementing proper safety precautions. 

Many of us in the workforce thankfully are not engaged in hazardous employment, but there are dangers often not anticipated. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, overexertion due to lifting or bending the body was the leading cause of workplace injury in New York. These types of injuries are seen in health care, food services, educational services, retail, professional and business services. In short, most work-related injuries are not confined to the construction industry but rather are occurring in every industry.  

What should you do to protect yourself from many of the common injuries? First and foremost, know exactly what your job duties entail. Find out how to properly perform your job before you engage in your work.

  • Make sure your workspace is maintained in a neat and orderly way so that you don’t trip on wires or boxes, or slip on papers, or food or oil in the food service industry.
  • If your office has a break room or kitchen, make sure spills are cleaned up immediately.
  • Office supplies should be stored properly so they don’t fall on you or your coworkers.
  • Know the proper way to lift heavy items to protect your back
  • Make sure your computer workstation allows you to maintain adequate posture so you don’t put undue strain on your arms, hands and back
  • Have an ergonomic keyboard that can help reduce injuries to your wrists
  • If you are not trained as a technician, do not try to fix equipment; bring in a repairman
  • Make sure you are instructed on what to do in case of a fire; know where the exits are and make sure your company engages in fire drills

If all else fails and an accident does occur, know the proper procedure for reporting an injury.   Workplace safety is crucial. It will save employers money as injuries result in loss of manpower and higher insurance rates, but most importantly, workplace safety will save lives.

 

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. 

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The Right to a Safe Workplace

Today’s post comes from guest author Todd Bennett, from Rehm, Bennett & Moore.

Under federal law, every employee has the right to a safe workplace. If you believe your workplace is dangerous and changes in safety policy are ignored, you can request an inspection from OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration).

Workers’ compensation, which is regulated on a state-by-state level, covers medical bills, lost wages, disability and vocational rehabilitation services for employees injured on the job. If you have any questions regarding these benefits, please contact an experienced lawyer in your area.

 If you believe you work in an unsafe work area, here are some tips to be aware of to make sure your workplace is as safe as possible, and you protect yourself from significant injury:

  1.  Know the hazards in your workplace.
  2. While in a seated position, keep your shoulders in line with your hips. Use good form when lifting.
  3. Injuries occur when workers get tired. Take breaks when you’re tired.
  4. Do not skip safety procedures just because it makes the job easier or quicker. Using dangerous machinery is the one of the leading causes of work injuries.
  5. Be aware of where emergency shutoff switches are located.
  6. Report unsafe work areas.
  7. Wear proper safety equipment.

If you are injured due to an unsafe workplace, and you are unsure of the benefits that you are entitled to, contact an experienced attorney in your area.

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Hazards exist in the surface refinishing business

Today’s post comes from guest author Jon Gelman from Jon Gelman, LLC – Attorney at Law.

University of Iowa, College of Public health, recently reported the death of a bathtub refinishing technician who died from the inhalation of paint stripper vapors.

The apartment manager and first responders reported a strong chemical odor in the second story apartment.

In 2012, a 37-year-old female technician employed by a surface-refinishing business died from inhalation exposure to methylene chloride and methanol vapors while she used a chemical stripper to prep the surface of a bathtub for refinishing. The technician was working alone without respiratory protection or ventilation controls in a small bathroom of a rental apartment. When the technician did not pick up her children at the end of the day, her parents contacted her employer, who then called the apartment complex manager after determining the victim’s personal vehicle was still at the refinishing company’s parking lot. The apartment complex manager went to the apartment unit where the employee had been working and called 911 upon finding the employee unresponsive, slumped over the bathtub. City Fire Department responders arrived within 4 minutes of the 911 call. The apartment manager and first responders reported a strong chemical odor in the second story apartment. There was an uncapped gallon can of Continue reading

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NY Company Fined for Noise Violations in the Workplace

Recently, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced that a Queens metal products manufacturer was cited and fined more than $108,900. The manufacturer had committed a number of repeat workplace safety violations, including failure to protect workers from exposure to high noise levels.

Our New York City work injury attorneys know that exposure to loud noises at work can have serious consequences for a worker’s hearing. Employers must use caution to ensure that employees are protected in loud workplaces in order to avoid permanent damage. If an employer fails and a worker’s hearing is impacted, a workers compensation claim could be filed.

Too often, we don’t associate hearing loss with trauma. Yet, workplace noise is a leading cause of hearing impairment.

OSHA on Loud Workplaces

The Queens business cited for noise violations is not the only one that has failed to comply with OSHA noise regulations. There are many businesses, including those in the fields of manufacturing, hospitality, mining and construction, that do not comply with the guidelines designed to protect the hearing of workers. 

This lack of compliance is tragic since the guidelines are simple and effective. The OSHA guidelines related to noise hazards focus on prevention, mitigation, training and correction of problems. For example, OSHA requires that:

  • Employers institute a hearing conservation program if workers are exposed to 85 decibels or more over the course of their day. This program can include audiometric testing (a hearing test) annually.
  • Employers provide hearing protection devices, such as earplugs, in order to minimize the potential damage to hearing caused by loud noises.
  • Employers use either administrative or engineering noise control methods if the noise level would result in exposure exceeding 90 decibels.

Engineering controls center around making the worksite less noisy. This might include redesigning the workplace so machinery noise is reduced; enclosing the source of the noise; enclosing the worker away from the loudest noise; or purchasing quieter equipment in order to replace the older, louder equipment that is causing the hazard.

In the case of the Queens metal products manufacturer recently cited by OSHA, the company failed to create a hearing conservation program for those workers who were routinely exposed to loud noise levels. Since such a program is required, the company could be held responsible for the failure. This was considered a serious violation, and resulted in a fine of $34,650.

The fines that an employer may be required to pay to OSHA for a failure to comply with noise requirements may serve as a deterrent to encourage change, safer behavior and better safety practices in the future. However, for workers who have already been harmed due to noisy workplaces, the fines that an employer must pay to OSHA as a result of violations of workplace safety laws don’t help to cover their costs or meet their bills.

Those who were injured due to excessive loudness at work, however, can file a workers compensation claim. Such claims are available for any work injury and can cover the costs of medical treatment, as well as the costs of any time that the worker must take away from employment due to health problems incurred on the job. 

If you’ve been hurt at work, contact the Law Offices of Pasternack Tilker Ziegler Walsh Stanton & Romano, LLP today for a free evaluation by calling (800) 692-3717

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Nanotechnology in the Workplace

Today’s post comes from guest author Leonard Jernigan from The Jernigan Law Firm.

During cancer research in 1986 an accident created the first man-made nanoparticle, an incredibly small particle which can absorb radiant energy and theoretically destroy a tumor. One type of nanoparticle is 20 times stronger than steel and is found in over 1,300 consumer products, including laptops, cell phones, plastic bottles, shampoos, sunscreens, acne treatment lotions and automobile tires. It is the forerunner of the next industrial revolution.

What is the problem? Unfortunately, nanoparticles are somewhat unpredictable and no one really knows how they react to humans. A report out of China claims that two nano-workers died as a result of overexposure, and in Belgium five males inhaled radioactive nanoparticles in an experiment and within 60 seconds the nanoparticles shot straight into the bloodstream, which is a potential setup for disaster. In a survey of scientists 30% listed “new health problems” associated with nanotechnology as a major concern.

Lewis L. Laska, a business law professor, wrote an article in Trial Magazine (September, 2012) in which he advised lawyers to become knowledgeable about nanoscience and be aware of the potential harm to workers and others who come in contact with this new technology, particularly because the EPA, FDA and OSHA have neither approved nor disapproved the use of nanostructures in products. It has been said that workers are like canaries in the cage (in mining operations), and if nanoscience is a danger then workers’ compensation lawyers will be the first to see it and appreciate it.

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