Things you should know

NCCI published a large set of changes to the Basic Manual

While many of the changes are minor, such as replacing “insured” with “employer,” here are some you should know:

  1. Stores and day care services operated by the employer for employee use are now a general inclusion. Previously, they were a general exclusion. They must be separately rated if they also operate for the general public.
  2. The “automatic” exclusion for expense reimbursements when traveling overnight increased from $30 to $75 per day. Texas has their own exception to this and you can exclude up to the maximum IRS allowable per-diem, which is currently $189.
  3. 7228 and 7229 (Short and Long-Haul Trucking) are being retired in favor of 7219. This change has already happened in many states, with many more following along over the next year. Check with your agent for more information.

EEOC provides timeline for revising wellness regulations

In a court ruling in August, the American Association of Retired Persons, Inc. (AARP) challenged the EEOC regulations on the basis of the “voluntariness” of the 30 percent incentive limitation and the court held that the EEOC did not provide a reasonable explanation as to why the incentive limit of 30 percent of the cost of coverage rendered an employee health program voluntary rather than involuntary.

According to a status report issued in September, the EEOC intends to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking by August 2018 and issue a final rule by October 2019. Notably, the EEOC indicates in a footnote that, in order to give employers time to come into compliance with a new rule, any substantively amended rule on wellness programs would likely not be applicable until the beginning of 2021.

Adult obesity rate climbs to 40 percent

Obesity continues to present a problem to both the adult and younger population of the United States, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).About 40 percent of U.S. adults are considered obese, and the rate grew 20 percent for 12 to 19 year olds, the CDC’s National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicated.

NIOSH center to focus on ‘safe integration of robots’ in the workplace

Citing a “knowledge gap related to robotics and worker safety and health,” NIOSH has launched the Center for Occupational Robotics Research in an effort to evaluate the possible advantages and hazards of robot workers, as well as foster safe robot-human interactions.
State News

California

  • The Department of Insurance announced that the pure premium rate will reduce 17.1% to $1.94 per $100 of payroll for workers’ compensation insurance, effective Jan. 1, 2018
  • California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would require employers to provide employees their injury and illness prevention plan upon request
  • Hepatitis A outbreaks have been reported in San Diego, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles counties and Cal/OSHA has issued a reminder to employers about preventive measures

Indiana

  • Indiana Department of Insurance approved a 12.8% rate decrease
  • A WCRI report notes that medical payments per claim decreased 10% from 2014 to 2015 – the first such decrease in more than a decade

Michigan

  • The pure premium advisory rate for work comp insurance will decrease by 9.3% for 2018

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

ADA
Another court decision scales back right to take more leave after exhausting FMLA

Last month, we reported on the 7th US Circuit Appeals decision in the Severson case. That same appellate court recently ruled in Golden v. IHA that extended leave beyond what the FMLA requires is not a reasonable accommodation under the ADA.

In this case, an employee with breast cancer, required surgery and an extended leave. When her 12 weeks of FMLA leave was about to expire, she sought an unspecified period of leave, but her employer declined to grant more than four additional weeks of leave. When she could not return from work after 16 weeks off, she was terminated.

It’s important to note that in both cases the employee’s return to work date was unclear. Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of each leave request to determine whether a leave of absence or intermittent leave is reasonable and effective in helping the employee return to work. There is a split in authority among the courts that the U.S. Supreme Court ultimately may have to resolve.


FMLA

Managers’ inaction can be costly

In Boadi v. Center for Human Development an employee was hospitalized unexpectedly for a mental health condition and her son notified her employer four times over the course of one week, including her supervisor, the supervisor’s boss, and the boss’s boss. Although he explained that his mother was unintelligible, a supervisor told him it was unacceptable for him to call instead of his mother. The same supervisor informed the vice president of Human Resources that the employee was hospitalized and later reported her a “no call/no show” when she failed to personally call about her continued absences. A termination letter was written and when the employee returned with her doctor’s medical certification, she was told her employment had been terminated because she abandoned her job.

During the case, the court specifically commented that the managers were “not trained on the FMLA.” Noting the lack of training, the court found that the employer willfully violated the FMLA, and awarded liquidated damages, which doubled the back-pay award to $300,000.

 

Workers’ Compensation
Comp’s ‘going and coming’ rule determines employer’s vicarious liability – California

In Morales-Simental v. Genentech, the court explained that an employer generally will be held vicariously liable for the tortious conduct of its employees within the scope of their employment. However, case law recognizes that an employee commuting to or from work is typically outside the scope of employment, and the employer is not liable for the employee’s torts while traveling. There are some exceptions, but the court found they did not apply and, therefore, the employer could not be held vicariously liable for the alleged negligence of an employee in causing a fatal car accident.


Convicted of fraud, worker still entitled to benefits – California

In Pearson Ford v. WCAB (Hernandez), a worker accidentally slammed a trunk lid on his hand, but did not break any bones. He received workers’ comp for pain and later began wearing a sling and telling his treatment providers that he was unable to use his left arm and hand. A private investigator shot video of him removing his sling after attending doctor’s appointments, using his left hand to drive, carrying groceries, and lifting a washing machine. He pleaded guilty to making materially false statements for the purpose of obtaining workers’ compensation benefits.

Later, a workers’ compensation judge issued, and the Appeals Board approved, an award of permanent partial disability benefits. The court reasoned there was a compensable injury that was not directly connected to the worker’s fraudulent misrepresentation.


Failure to train in lockout/tagout leads to $310,000 settlement – California

Growers Street Cooling has agreed to pay $310,000 in costs and civil penalties, maintain and implement written hazardous energy control procedures, and conduct proper training as a result of legal action brought by the Monterey County District Attorney following a 2013 worker fatality at the Salinas-based produce-cooling company. The worker had been working at the company as a machine operator for only 16 days prior to the accident and was never trained on lockout/tagout procedures. Nor did the company maintain a written lockout/tagout policy or training program; thus, they were charged with systematically violating worker safety laws.


Comp coverage uncertain for off-duty police officers at Las Vegas concert shooting – California

Due to some muddy language in the state’s Labor Code, it is uncertain if municipalities are required or even allowed to pay to treat off-duty police who chose independently to intervene in an out-of-state emergency. Orange County rejected workers’ compensation claims from four sheriff’s deputies injured in the shooting and more claims are expected. More than 200 Southern California police officers attended the Las Vegas concert. Had the incident occurred in California, they would be covered, but the Labor Code makes no mention of out-of-state tragedies.


Employer can terminate benefits when employee returns to “baseline” – Georgia

In EMC v. McDuffie, an employee had a significant disability to his knee at the time he took the job, which he did not disclose, and he suffered a subsequent knee injury when he stepped in a hole while working. The Supreme Court ruled that when an employee has a pre-existing condition that limits work capacity, as soon as the employee recovers from “the aggravation”, the employer’s responsibility for workers’ compensation ceases. The court did not define baseline.

This is an important decision because it’s well established that employers are responsible for an aggravation of a pre-existing condition only until the aggravation ends, but there wasn’t a case that said when an employee still has restrictions, which they had before, the employer is not responsible.


Meretricious relationship results in disqualification of death benefits – Georgia

In Sanchez v. Carter, a state appellate court cited a 1990 decision of the Supreme Court of Georgia, Williams v. Corbett, and found within the context of a workers’ compensation claim, a meretricious relationship does not entitle a dependent to death benefits, even if actual dependency exists. In this case, the couple had lived together for 13 years, but never legally married.


Court reduces award in retaliatory discharge claim – Illinois

Two employees suffered work-related injuries and were fired for failing to report to work after an independent medical examiner (IME) cleared them to return to their jobs. They filed suit, asserting they had been discharged in retaliation for having pursued workers’ compensation claims. The Illinois Appellate Court ruled that an employer may not rely solely on an IME in terminating the employee for failing to return to work or for failing to call in his absences when the opinion conflicts with the employee’s doctor. But, the worker must still prove his discharge was causally related to his exercising of workers’ compensation rights.

The men then filed an amended complaint and pursued separate jury trials. While a jury found in favor of the employer in one case, in Francek v. Dominick’s Finer Foods, the jury awarded $156,315.50 in compensatory damages and $2.5 million in punitive damages, plus court costs to the employee. However, the appellate court concluded that the award of punitive damages was unconstitutionally excessive (16:1) under federal due process standard and concluded that a 9:1 ratio would be appropriate.


Workers’ comp precludes security’s guard personal injury suit – Missouri

In Kayden v. Ford Motor Co., U.S. Security Associates provided security services under a contract for a Ford assembly plant. A security guard slipped and fell in the parking lot, where it was determined a pothole was not repaired properly. After she filed a personal injury suit against Ford, Ford moved for summary judgment, asserting that it qualified as the employer for purposes of the Missouri Workers’ Compensation Act and the court agreed.


Exception to schedule loss of use (SLU) allows apportionment – New York

While generally a judge or board may not apportion a PPD award based upon a preexisting condition that did not prevent the employee from effectively performing his or her job duties at the time of a subsequent work-related injury, apportionment may be applicable if the medical evidence establishes that the prior injury – had it been compensable – would have resulted in an SLU finding. In the Matter of the Claim of Sanchez v. STS Steel, there was medical expert opinion that a non-work related surgical procedure involving the excision of the meniscus right knee would have resulted in a 7.5% SLU; therefore, apportionment was appropriate.


Estate can pursue wrongful death claim – New York

In Assevero v. Hamilton & Church Properties, an employee fell from a ladder and filed a Labor Law action asserting an unsecured extension ladder shifted as he was descending and caused the fall. A trial judge granted summary judgement to the employer, and the employee appealed. While the appeal was pending, the employee died from an overdose of pain medication prescribed for his injuries. The Appellate Division’s 2nd Department overturned the grant of summary judgment for the employer and the estate’s administrator filed a motion to amend the complaint to include a cause of action for wrongful death, which was allowed.


Widow of worker killed by street sweeper awarded $41.5m – New York

The widow of a New York City Department of Sanitation worker killed by an out-of-control street sweeper won a $41.5 million negligence lawsuit. The New York Post reports that a Queens jury recently awarded the sum to the widow for the death of her 43-year-old husband who was struck and killed by a colleague’s vehicle inside a garage in 2014. The city plans to pursue legal options to reduce the award.


Death from accidental overdose compensable – North Carolina

In Brady v. Best Buy Co., an injured worker was taking narcotics to treat his compensable low back injury, additional medication for treatment of depression, and other prescription medications. The Court of Appeals upheld a reward of benefits to the beneficiaries noting the unchallenged finding that pain medications established the death as compensable, regardless of whether his medications for depression had a contributory effect.


Going and coming rule does not bar death benefits in case of donut shop manager – Pennsylvania

In Rana v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd, an employee worked as a manager at one of the employer’s three donut shops, but occasionally was called upon to handle issues at the other two shops. He died in a car crash traveling from his residence to one of the other shops to potentially fill in for a kitchen employee who had fallen ill during a work shift. The court found that the manager was a traveling employee and, therefore, his dependent’s death benefits claim was not barred by the going and coming rule. It also noted even if he was considered a stationary employee, the claim would still be compensable, since he was engaged in a special assignment on behalf of the employer.


Commonwealth Court overturns denial of benefits based on ‘going and coming’ rule – Pennsylvania

In Fields v. WCAB (Carl G’s Total Cleanouts), an employee had been working at the same job site doing demolition work for two or three weeks. He and a colleague took a company truck to drop off debris at a scrapyard (they received a percentage of the metal hauled as part of wages) and then the colleague planned to drop the employee at home and return the truck to the employer. En route, the employee sustained injuries in an auto accident. A workers’ compensation judge determined, and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board affirmed, that he had a fixed place of work, and the accident occurred during his commute home from the workplace, and was not compensable under the going and coming rule.

Upon appeal, the Commonwealth Court noted exceptions to the going and coming rule include when a worker’s employment contract includes transportation to and from work; when the worker has no fixed place of work; when the worker is on a special mission for his employer; or when the worker’s travel is furthering the business of the employer. While the lower courts focused on the fixed place of employment, the facts supported a legal conclusion that he was furthering his employer’s business when he was injured – to dispose of the material the crew had cleaned out of the job site.


Witnessing workplace shooting caused PTSD – Tennessee

In Evans v. Alliance Healthcare Services, a bus driver was transporting a counselor to a patient’s home in response to a call from the patient’s brother. As they entered the house, the patient shot the counselor. While the counselor survived the attack, the bus driver received mental health care through workers’ compensation but she did not return to work.

The company acknowledged that the shooting initially may have caused the PTSD, but asserted the continuing mental health problems were caused by other events. The trial court disagreed and found she was permanently and totally disabled and that the shooting incident was the cause of her disability. This was upheld by the Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel of the Supreme Court.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and Slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

HR Tip: Employers underestimate impact of change on employees

American adults who have been impacted by change at work are more likely to report chronic work stress, less likely to trust their employer, and more likely to say they plan to leave the organization within the next year compared with those who haven’t been affected by organizational change, according to a recent survey by the American Psychological Association.

The Executive summary notes: “Underlying employee reactions to organizational change may be their perceptions of the motivation behind those changes and the likelihood of success. Almost a third of U.S. workers said they were cynical when it comes to changes, reporting that they believed management had a hidden agenda (29 percent), that their motives and intentions were different from what they said (31 percent) and that they tried to cover up the real reasons for the changes (28 percent). Working Americans also appeared skeptical when it comes to the outcomes of organizational changes. Only 4 in 10 employees (43 percent) had confidence that changes would have the desired effects and almost 3 in 10 doubted that changes would work as intended and achieve their goals (28 percent each).”

Other key findings include:

  • Although 78 percent of workers reported average or better levels of engagement, one in five employees reported low or very low levels. Workers who felt they were treated fairly by their employers were more than five times as likely to report high or very high levels of work engagement, compared with employees who didn’t feel treated fairly. Other important factors affecting engagement were employee involvement, growth and development opportunities, and health and safety efforts.
  • Although most employed adults (71 percent) felt that their organization treats them fairly, one in five said they did not trust their employer.
  • Trust and engagement play important roles in the workplace, accounting for more than half of the variance in employee well being.
  • Workers reported having more trust in their companies when the organization recognizes employees for their contributions, provides opportunities for involvement, and communicates effectively.

David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence noted that change is inevitable in organizations, but when not managed properly, can undermine success. “To build trust and engagement, employers need to focus on building a psychologically healthy workplace where employees are actively involved in shaping the future and confident in their ability to succeed.”

 

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Things you should know

Attention motor carriers: “Roadcheck” annual event – June 6 – 8

Nearly three times more roadside inspections take place during the 72 hours on June 6 – 8 than on any other time of the year. Sponsored by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), the intensive annual “Roadcheck” is a good opportunity for those in the motor carrier industry to improve their Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA) scores. In 2016, 62,796 truck and bus inspections were completed throughout the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Top construction risks: geopolitical instability, workforce management issues

In a survey of executives in the construction sector, Willis Towers Watson P.L.C. found geopolitical instability and workforce management issues as the biggest challenges facing the industry. Geopolitical issues included uncertainty of government support and financing, postponement and delays, changes in strategy, and commitment to project pipelines. Workforce management issues include increasing need for digital skills, a global employee network, disparate labor laws, difficulty to attract talent, and an aging population. The Construction Risk Index report can be downloaded here.

New pamphlet spotlights Hypothenar Hammer Syndrome

Scientific research organization IRSST has released a pamphlet intended to help workers recognize Hypothenar Hammer Syndrome. Aimed at workers who use vibrating tools or frequently strike, press or twist objects with the palms of their hands, the free pamphlet outlines syndrome warning signs and prevention methods.

Mayo Clinic study: second opinion leads to new or refined diagnosis for 88% of patients

Many patients come to Mayo Clinic for a second opinion or diagnosis confirmation before treatment for a complex condition. In a new study, Mayo Clinic reports that as many as 88 percent of those patients go home with a new or refined diagnosis – changing their care plan and potentially their lives. Conversely, only 12 percent receive confirmation that the original diagnosis was complete and correct.

These findings were published online in the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice.

Study links participation in weight-loss programs to reduced absenteeism

Obese workers who took part in a structured weight-loss program reported fewer hours missed on the job after six months, a recent University of Michigan study shows.

Researchers surveyed 92 people who had an average body mass index of 40 and worked in various occupations. Before entering the program, participants stated in a self-evaluation that they worked an average of 5.2 fewer hours a month than their employers expected. After six months and an average of 41 pounds shed, participants reported working 6.4 more hours a month than expected.

WCRI’s CompScope™ Benchmark 2017

The 17th edition of CompScope™ Benchmarks Report is available from the Workers’ Compensation Research Institute (WCRI). The report looks at the impact of state workers’ compensation reforms on things like claim costs, rate of litigation, and disability duration and included 18 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Wisconsin. In California and North Carolina, the total costs per claim have been steady between 2010 and 2013. Illinois saw total costs per claim decrease by 6.4 percent since 2010, which researchers attribute to a 30 percent reduction in fee schedule rates for their medical services. Indiana’s total costs per claim decreased by 4 percent from 2014 to 2015, a product of a 10 percent decrease in medical payments, but a 5 percent increase in indemnity benefits per claim. In Florida, total costs per claim increased between 2010 and 2015, but there were decisions last year from the Florida Supreme Court that may slow or stop those increases in costs.

Rising pedestrian death toll

The latest report on U.S. pedestrian deaths, from the Governors Highway Safety Association, estimates that last year’s total rose 11.6 percent to nearly 6,000, or more than 16 fatalities a day. If that projection proves accurate – it is based on fatality records from only the first half of 2016 – it would mark the sharpest yearlong increase since records have been kept.

Analysts are putting much of the blame on drivers and walkers who are looking at their smartphones instead of watching where they are going. Tipsy walking also is part of the problem, with one in three victims legally drunk when they were struck and killed.

Workplace death rate hits a 10-year high in Massachusetts

Seventy Massachusetts workers lost their lives last year, marking a 10-year high in the rate of workplace-related fatalities, according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, known as MassCOSH. Sixty-two of those workers were killed on the job, many in construction; the rest were firefighters who died from occupational illnesses, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

ADA
EEOC settles first direct challenge to employer wellness program

The EEOC’s first lawsuit directly challenging an employer’s wellness program-filed in 2014- was against Orion Energy Systems. The company had switched to a self-insured plan and, to save costs, initiated a wellness plan that revolved around three incentives: the employee did not smoke, would exercise 16 times a month, and have a health risk assessment (HRA). There were surcharges for non-compliance, including paying the entire monthly premium if they did not have a HRA, which was $413.43 for single, $744.16 for limited family, and $1,130.83 for family coverage.

One employee raised concerns about the wellness initiative and HRA, questioning confidentiality and how the premium was calculated believing it excessive in light of the service fee Orion paid its third-party administrator (she knew the amount because she paid invoices). She opted out of the program and agreed to pay the premium. However, her supervisor and the HR director spoke to her about comments she made to coworkers about the premium, telling her such negativity was not welcome, and to keep her opinions to herself and eventually she was terminated.

While the court found that Orion’s wellness plan was lawful under the regulations at the time, there were issues of fact as to whether the employee was fired because of her opposition to the wellness plan. Under the consent decree settling the suit, Orion agreed to pay $100,000 to the employee and agreed that it won’t maintain any wellness program in the future that poses disability-related inquiries or seeks a medical examination that is not voluntary within the meaning of the ADA and its regulations as well as other provisions.

FMLA
Inadvisable email negates defense to FMLA retaliation claim

An employee at Wells Fargo received an informal and then a formal warning about underperformance and her failure to meet sales goals. One week prior to receiving the formal warning, she was diagnosed with myelopathy, scheduled for surgery, and received FMLA leave. When she returned to work on limited duty, her supervisor warned her that she was still near termination. After her return to full duty, her supervisor determined she had not made sufficient improvement and he documented the problems in an email to the HR department and recommended termination. In this email, he also noted, “Debby submits a request for a leave of absence.”

The employee sued for retaliatory discharge under the FMLA and the federal court found that the email comment about the request for a leave of absence as part of the email justifying discharge was direct evidence of unlawful retaliation. Although Wells Fargo could document the underperformance and warnings, the court concluded for summary judgment motions in cases involving direct evidence of discrimination, an employer’s legitimate, nondiscriminatory business reason for an adverse employment action is irrelevant.

Takeaway: Electronic communications have permanency. Be sure supervisors and managers understand the importance of their choice of words and know what should and should not be included in recommendations for termination.

Temporary work counts as a factor when determining FMLA eligibility

In Meky v. Jetson Specialty Mktg. Servs. Inc., a temporary employee was hired through a staffing agency for about six months and then was hired to work full-time. She requested FMLA, but was told she was not eligible and was terminated a few months later for leaving work early. She sued and one question the court had to decide was the start date of her employment. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the correct date was the date on which she started working as a temporary employee, since the staffing agency and the Jetson were joint employers.

Workers’ Compensation
Finding of compensable injuries to knee and shoulder does not bar later additional claim related to back – California

In Iniguez v. WCAB (Blue Rose Concrete Contractors), a worker was compensated in 2012 for injuries to his knee and shoulder stemming from an accident in 2010. In November 2014, he filed another claim seeking additional benefits for injuries to the neck and back. The WCAB found that compensation should be limited to the knee and shoulder in accordance with the 2012 litigation, but the 2nd District Court of Appeals annulled the board’s decision by saying there was no finding that these were the only industrial injuries sustained and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Vacation and sick time not earned income when calculating impairment benefits – Florida

In Eckert v. Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office, the employer reduced the injured worker’s benefits by 50% for the 23 weeks he used his sick leave and vacation time, arguing that this was allowed as “earned income” under state law. However, the 1st District Court of Appeal said use of sick leave and vacation time could not count toward his average weekly pay for the 23 weeks in question, since sick leave and vacation time were not accrued during the weeks that he drew upon so it was not “earned income.”

“Heart attack waiting to happen” leads to denial of claim – Illinois

A firefighter described, as “a heart attack waiting to happen” should not receive benefits for a heart attack sustained while cleaning his firehouse parking spot of snow ruled an appellate court. The firefighter was a heavy smoker, obese, and had so many risk factors for a heart attack that the cardiac event could have occurred “anytime and anywhere,” said the arbitrator. Those risk factors were enough to overcome the statutory presumption that heart attacks suffered by firefighters are a compensable injury.

Fired for misconduct, employee can still collect benefits – Indiana

In Masterbrand Cabinets v. Waid, a worker who injured his back disagreed with his doctor and supervisor about his level of pain and work capacity. An incident with the supervisor escalated to an altercation. He was suspended and then terminated. He continued to see the doctor and the Workers’ Compensation Board found he was unable to perform work of the same kind he was performing when injured and that he was due TTD payments. The company appealed, arguing the worker was not entitled to TTD benefits because he was terminated for misconduct. However, the Court held that the inability to work was related to his injury and, therefore, he was entitled to benefits.

Statute of limitations not valid defense when injured employee was promised action – Mississippi

An employer and its carrier cannot argue the statute of limitations as a defense when the carrier had assured the injured employee that it would “take care of everything” and there was no need for her to hire an attorney. Moreover, the carrier had paid for medical expenses three days after the expiration. Dietz v. South Miss. Reg’l Ctr.

Long history of medical problems does not preclude PTD for shoulder injury – Missouri

In Maryville R-II School District v. Payton, a school groundskeeper with a history of ailments and multiple surgeries went to the emergency room when he started to have serious shoulder pain after assembling a soccer goal. An X-ray did not reveal any acute fracture or dislocation, and an emergency room doctor tentatively diagnosed him with osteoarthritis. He then saw the school district’s physician who opined that the activity was unlikely to be the prevailing cause of the pain. He then sought treatment from his own physician and an MRI revealed a rotator cuff tear. Surgery was performed but the rotator cuff tore again and he was unable to return to work because the school district could not accommodate his lifting restrictions.

A judge, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission, and the Court of Appeals all concurred that the injury was permanent and totally disabling.

Tort suit for worker’s heat-related death revived – Missouri

In Channel v. Cintas Corp., a 52-year-old delivery driver died of heat stroke and his widow filed a wrongful death action against the supervisor and the company. She argued that the supervisor ignored the company’s heat safety protocols by placing her husband in a truck without air conditioning on a day when temperatures were over 100 degrees. While a circuit judge ruled that workers’ comp was the only remedy, the Court of Appeals ruled that the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission had not yet ruled on the workers’ comp case and it was improper for the judge to determine that the death was an accident. The suit was reinstated and placed on hold.

Symptoms of heart attack at work not sufficient for death benefits – New York

In the Matter of Bordonaro v Genesee County Sheriff’s Office, a deputy sheriff died at home in his sleep and his widow sought workers’ comp death benefits, contending his initial symptoms occurred at work. Noting the employee had completed his shift and had not sought medical treatment, the appellate court supported the Board’s finding that the death was not casually connected to work.

Benefits denied in two stress related cases – New York

In Matter of Novak v St. Luke’s Roosevelt Hosp., a New York appellate court affirmed a Board finding that a nurse’s work-related stress did not exceed what could be expected in her normal work environment. It was determined that her stress stemmed from her involvement in a disciplinary proceeding, wrongful termination, and subsequent reinstatement after a six-month suspension. She complained about her treatment by co-workers when she returned to work, eventually quit her job, and filed a comp claim asserting the events caused insomnia, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, and a severe social phobia. The claim was disallowed and the appellate court noted claims for mental injuries based on work-related stress are precluded “if such mental injury is a direct consequence of a lawful personnel decision involving a disciplinary action, work evaluation, job transfer, demotion or termination taken in good faith by the employer.”

In Burke v. New York City Transit Authority, a subway train operator was denied a psyche claim for harassment from his supervisors. The employee wears glasses, has a sensitivity to light, and has tinted lenses he can flip down over his glasses. Train operators are prohibited from wearing sunglasses for safety reasons, and the employee was being monitored to ensure that he was not wearing his tinted lenses while operating a train. He claimed his supervisors harassed and intimidated him about the lenses, causing him to develop disabling anxiety and panic attacks. The courts determined that the stress created by the investigation was not greater than that which other similarly situated workers experienced in normal work and, therefore, it was not compensable.

Benefits granted for ‘reasonable effort’ for employment – North Carolina

For a worker to receive benefits in the state, it must be shown that the worker was not capable of earning the same money as before the injury due to the injury. In Snyder v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., a tire builder suffered a back injury and returned to work with lifting restrictions. However, the employer was not able to accommodate the restrictions and sent him home. He filed for workers’ comp and the commission found that he met the burden for temporary total disability by proving he could not return to his pre-injury job and had made unsuccessful attempts to obtain employment.

While the company appealed, arguing that the employee had not made reasonable efforts for employment, the appeals court disagreed. The court did note that an employer’s failure to provide light duty work in and of itself is not proof that an injured employee made a reasonable but unsuccessful effort to find employment.

Decision in Heart and Lung claim not binding on workers’ comp – Pennsylvania

A prison guard trainee hurt his knee and filed for benefits under the Heart and Lung Act (H & L Act), which allows certain police officers and other public safety employees to collect full salary and medical benefits for temporary injuries. An arbitrator determined he was eligible for benefits. He later filed a claim for workers’ comp, but the judge found he was entitled to medical benefits, but not disability benefits because he failed to prove a loss of wages.

The guard appealed arguing his disability was established under the H & L Act, but the court noted the laws were quite different and the Workers’ Comp Act could provide significantly greater medical and indemnity benefits, including those for permanent impairment. Therefore, a decision by an arbitrator in an H & L claim filed by a corrections officer was not binding on the workers’ compensation judge. Merrell v. Workers’ Comp. Appeal Bd. Commonwealth Dep’t of Corr.

Non-payment of PT benefits leads to penalties in spite of billing dispute – Pennsylvania

An employee of Derry Township Supervisors received PT for a back and neck injury at a facility owned by The pt Group. The bills, however, came from the Physical Therapy Institute (PTI), which had a contractual arrangement with The pt Group. The Derry Township argued this arrangement was a way to charge higher fees.

As of Jan. 1, 1995, providers are able to bill comp carriers at 113% of the rate established by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services fee schedule, but the Supervisors alleged that providers in business before that date can use a “cost-plus” formula that generally means a higher payment. The pt Group was subject to the 113% cap, but PTI was not.

The Commonwealth Court upheld lower court decisions that there was nothing illegal in this arrangement and ordered an award of $83,400 in attorney fees, and reimbursement of $3,328.32 for litigation costs.

Opioid overdose after injury not compensable – Tennessee

A carpenter was involved in an employment-related motor vehicle accident that caused fractures to the vertebrae in his neck and disc herniation in his lower back. He underwent surgery, but continued to have back pain and further surgeries were denied, as were epidural steroid injections. He was referred to a pain management clinic and restricted from returning to work.

He told the pain management specialist that he began taking extra opioid tablets and consumed alcohol because he felt the medications were no longer effective. Shortly after agreeing to a program to wean off the drugs, his wife found him unresponsive in bed. The medical examiner ruled his death an accident caused by acute oxycodone toxicity with contributory causes of hypertension and alcohol and tobacco use.

His wife filed with workers’ comp benefits and the case went through appeals and ultimately was heard by the state Supreme Court. In Judy Kilburn vs. Granite State Insurance Company, et al., the Supreme Court noted that a worker’s conduct can limit compensability of subsequent injuries that are a direct and natural result of a compensable primary injury and ruled his death not compensable because he failed to take his medications in compliance with physician’s orders.

Disagreement over diagnosis not sufficient to rebut correctness of impairment rating – Tennessee

In Williams v. Ajax Turner Co., an employee was assigned a 21.3% impairment rating from his doctor following surgery of his foot after a forklift accident. The employer requested a second opinion from an orthopedic surgeon who assigned a 5% impairment rating, and a third opinion through the medical impairment registry (MIR) program, which also resulted in a 5% rating. A trial judge accepted the treating doctor’s rating and applied a multiplier of 4.

The Supreme Court’s Special Workers’ Compensation Appeals Panel said an MIR physician’s rating is presumed to be accurate, unless this can be overcome by clear and convincing evidence giving rise to a “serious and substantial doubt” about the accuracy of the rating. A disagreement about the rating, however, is not clear and convincing evidence; therefore, the MIR rating should have been accepted. It also agreed to the multiplier of 4, given considerations of education, job skills, work history, and medical limitations so the award of permanent disability benefits had to be modified to 20%.

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OSHA watch

Lawsuit over OSHA electronic records rule delayed

A Texas court granted a request from the Trump administration for a 60-day delay in litigation of the electronic record-keeping rule and stayed the case until June 5, 2017. The deadline to submit a proposed summary judgment briefing schedule and for the administration’s response to motions to intervene in the case was extended to July 5.

Deputy assistant secretary of labor creates blog on large enforcement cases

Since the Trump administration took office, there have been very few press releases announcing health/safety violators. For years, the agency has routinely issued press releases about companies receiving citations of $40,000 or more and some workplace safety professionals have criticized the current administration for staying quiet on the issue. Taking matters into his own hands, Jordan Barab, the deputy assistant secretary of labor for OSHA for the past eight years created a blog of the large violations from January 18, 2017 to February 14, 2017.

Guidance documents on Process Safety Management Standard issued

Three guidance documents intended to help chemical facilities comply with the agency’s Process Safety Management Standard have been released.

 

Volks Rule overturned

As expected, President Trump signed the disapproval resolution of the controversial “Volks” rule, which increased the threshold for citing employer violations from six months to up to five years.

New online tool to help healthcare facilities address bloodborne pathogens and other hazards

NIOSH has established a web-based injury and exposure monitoring system available at no cost to healthcare facilities. There are two electronic modules for tracking “sharps” injuries, as well as blood and body fluid exposures among health care workers.

Legal case addressing scope of federal safety inspections proceeds to US Court of Appeals

This case centers on an investigation of a workplace accident at Mar-Jac Poultry Inc., a poultry processor in Georgia, and OSHA’s attempt to expand it on numerous potential hazards, beyond the site of the accident and the tools involved. The company refused. OSHA obtained an administrative warrant but it was disallowed by the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in response to a motion from Mar-Jac. It is now headed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

Safe + Sound week

To help employers participate and plan events for Safe + Sound week, June 12-18, OSHA has updated its webpage with sample activities, social media resources, and tools. The page also features an interactive map of events occurring across the country. Employers are encouraged to host events and activities that showcase the core elements of an effective safety and health program – management leadership, worker participation, and finding and fixing workplace hazards.

Enforcement notes

California

Building supply company fined for fatal forklift accident

A 60-year-old forklift operator was transferring building supplies from San Francisco-based Good View Roofing & Building Supply Corp.’s warehouse to a customer vehicle when the forklift he was driving tipped over the edge of a ramp and the worker was fatally crushed. The company was cited for three serious accident-related violations for failure to ensure proper use of a forklift seatbelt, failure to ensure the forklift operator was certified to safely operate the vehicle, and failure to ensure industrial ramps have at least an 8-inch curb along open edges to prevent the wheels of industrial trucks from running off the ramp. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined the company $62,320.

Appeals board upholds citations for carbon monoxide poisoning

Workers contracted by Barrett Business Services to package fruits and nuts in L&L Foods’ warehouse in Anaheim had complained to their supervisor that they were experiencing headaches, nausea and other health issues caused by forklifts operating in an enclosed area with poor ventilation. In 2012, citations were issued to both Barrett Business Services and L&L Foods for numerous safety violations, including willful violations for failing to take action on known hazards and the companies filed appeals. L&L Foods settled its case, but an administrative law judge denied Barrett’s appeal and imposed civil penalties of $80,050 and Barrett petitioned for reconsideration with the Appeals Board. The Board agreed the employer did not properly train its employees, disregarded workers’ reports of health hazards, and failed to monitor the worksite.

Georgia

Cleaning service cited for slip hazards that led to worker injury

Cleaning contractor Healthcare Services Group Inc. was cited for eight violations of workplace safety and health standards after a worker fell and broke her hip while cleaning a room at a regional hospital. Violations included not providing dry standing places or mats for workers cleaning and waxing floors, and not providing personal protective equipment to prevent exposure to hazardous chemicals. Proposed fines are $143,410.

Illinois

Employee complaints lead to citations for exposing workers to chemical hazards

An inspection of Orion Industries Ltd. in Chicago, in response to two employee complaints, identified workers in the spray painting operation being exposed to hexavalent chromium at levels approximately 40 times the permissible exposure limit. Inspectors cited the company for lacking sufficient engineering controls, work practices and protective gear to safeguard workers against exposure to hexavalent chromium. Orion was prompt in addressing the worker overexposures and achieved significant reductions in the fines by the time of its closing conference.

Massachusetts

Drain company faces $1.5M in fines following fatal trench collapse

Following the death of two employees in a Boston trench collapse, Atlantic Drain has been issued 18 citations and is facing $1,475,813 in penalties. The company was cited in two previous years and did not provide safety training and basic safeguards for employees. In February, a Suffolk County grand jury indicted Atlantic Drain and company owner, Kevin Otto, on two counts each of manslaughter and other charges in connection with the deaths.

General contractor must pay fines

An administrative law judge with the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission has ruled that two Massachusetts contractors – A.C. Castle Construction Co. Inc. and Daryl Provencher, doing business as Provencher Home Improvements – were operating as a single employer at a Wenham worksite when three employees were injured in October 2014. A.C. Castle contended that, as general contractor, it was not responsible for the safety of the workers on the jobsite, asserting that they were employed by Provencher. Based on a number of factors, the judge upheld the citation as a single employer.

New York

Driller’s death leads to $360,000 in fines

Catskill-based North American Quarry and Construction Services L.L.C, has agreed to pay $360,000 in penalties related to the 2012 death of a 30-year-old driller. The employee became entangled in the rotating drill steel and suffered fatal injuries when he tried to manually load a threaded drill steel into the mast of a drilling machine at the pit. The Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration determined that, before the accident, the company intentionally removed an emergency-stop switch from the drill and that the driller was assigned to work alone under hazardous conditions.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Things you should know

Opioid abuse rises with length of prescription

According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of opioid abuse rises with lengthy prescriptions. If received a one-day prescription, 6% were still on opioids a year later; when prescribed for 8 days or more, this rises to 13.5%; when prescribed for 31 days or more, it increases to 29.9%.

Blacklisting rule repealed

President Trump repealed the so-called “blacklisting rule” that required federal contractors to disclose labor violations. The executive order had required employers bidding for federal contracts worth at least $500,000 to disclose any of 14 violations of workplace protections during the previous three years.

FMCSA will not reinstate overnight rest regulations for commercial drivers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) regulation that required CMV (Commercial Motor Vehicle) drivers to take breaks in the hopes of preventing driver fatigue has been suspended since 2014 so that further research could be done to understand the efficacy of the program. A study from the Department of Transportation found that stricter mandated breaks did not do much to reduce driver fatigue or improve safety. Thus, the rule will not come out of suspension.

Study reveals occupations with sleep deprived workers

If your industry is health care, food service, or transportation, your workers are probably not getting adequate sleep, according to a study published March 3 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Workers who averaged fewer than seven hours of sleep per night were classified as having short sleep durations. Occupation groups that failed to average seven hours of sleep included:

  • Communications equipment operators: 58 percent
  • Rail transportation workers: 53 percent
  • Printing workers: 51 percent
  • Plant and system operators: 50 percent
  • Supervisors, food preparation and serving workers: 49 percent
  • Extraction workers: 45 percent
  • Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides: 43 %

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults 18 to 60 years old get at least seven hours of sleep every day. A lack of sleep can contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and other health issues, as well as contribute to more injuries on the job.

NIOSH announces free health screenings for coal miners

A series of free, confidential health screenings will be available for coal miners as part of the NIOSH Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. The first set of screenings will take place from March 26 to April 15 in coal mining regions throughout Alabama. The second set will occur from May 10 to May 31 throughout Indiana and Illinois. Finally, testing will take place from July 30 to Aug. 26 throughout Eastern Kentucky.

NIOSH updates mine hazard assessment software

Mine operators and workers now have access to updated hazard assessment software from NIOSH. According to the agency, EVADE 2.0 – short for Enhanced Video Analysis of Dust Exposures – offers a more comprehensive assessment of the hazards miners face by pulling together video footage and exposure data on dust, diesel and other gases, as well as sound levels.

Study: PT as effective as surgery for carpal tunnel

Physical therapy is as effective as surgery in treating carpal tunnel syndrome, according to a new study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. Researchers in Spain and the United States report that one year following treatment, patients with carpal tunnel syndrome who received physical therapy achieved results comparable to outcomes for patients who had surgery. Further, physical therapy patients saw faster improvements at the one-month mark than did patients treated surgically.

When hospital inspectors are watching, fewer patients die

A recent report in the New York Times cited a study in JAMA Internal Medicine which found death rates dropped when inspectors were onsite. In the non-inspection weeks, the average 30-day death rate was 7.21 percent. But during inspections, the rate fell to 7.03 percent. The difference was greater in teaching hospitals – 6.41 percent when the inspectors were absent, and 5.93 percent during survey weeks. While the difference may seem low, an absolute reduction of only 0.39 percent in the death rate would mean more than 3,500 fewer deaths per year.

Although the reasons for the effect are unclear, it was suggested when docs are being monitored, diligence ramps up.

Wearing eye protection can prevent 90 percent of work-related eye injuries, experts suggest

Ninety percent of on-the-job eye injuries could be avoided if workers wore eye protection, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). AAO offers the following tips for avoiding workplace eyestrain or injury:

  • Wear protective eyewear appropriate for the type of hazard you may encounter
  • Position your computer monitor 25 inches away
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds
  • Reduce glare on your cell phone or digital device
  • Adjust environmental lighting near your workstation

 

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

Workers’ Compensation
Worker has right to obtain medical report from doctor of his choice – California

In Davis v. WCAB (City of Modesto), Davis filed two workers’ compensation claims stating his prostate cancer developed because of his exposure to carcinogens while working as a firefighter. A qualified medical examiner (QME) issued opinions that the cancer was not work-related and Davis then hired a doctor to review the reports, which were sent to the QME for review. The city protested that this violated the discovery process and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) rescinded a judge’s order that had allowed the review.

Upon appeal, however, the WCAB filed a letter brief to the Court of Appeals, asking for review to be granted and for its decision to be vacated, since the decision had not addressed Labor Code Section 4605. Section 4605 says there is no limitation on the right of a worker to obtain a medical report, at his own expense, from the doctor of his choice. While the report cannot be “the sole basis of an award of compensation,” Section 4605 specifically allows a QME to address the report and respond to its contents.

Traveling worker denied benefits for fall in motel parking lot – Georgia

In Avrett Plumbing Co. v. Castillo, an hourly employee lived in Atlanta, but his job required him to work in Augusta. The company paid a weekly rate to provide him a hotel room and allowed him to use it on weekends at no cost. On a Sunday evening when returning from grocery shopping he tripped and fell in the parking lot, breaking his ankle. When he filed for workers’ comp, the company argued that the accident had not occurred during the course of employment, since it happened outside of normal work hours and the employee was engaged in activities unrelated to his job.

An administrative law judge disagreed and found the injury compensable under the “continuous employment” doctrine, because the employee was “required by his employment to live away from home while working.” The case went through several more appeals, and benefits were ultimately denied with the court finding the employee was there “merely as a personal convenience” (lack of money and transportation prevented travel to Atlanta) and that the errand was for the sole benefit of the employee.

Willful misconduct may bar comp benefits – Georgia

An employee who disobeys an employer’s instructions and acts in a dangerous fashion may not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the Supreme Court ruled. Chandler Telecom v. Burdette revolved around the question of willful misconduct. A cellphone tower employee sustained serious injuries attempting a “controlled descent” from a tower, even though a supervisor ordered him not to attempt the descent and to climb down and the crew’s lead tower repeatedly protested his actions.

The Board of Workers’ Compensation concluded the employee could not receive comp benefits because he engaged in willful misconduct by defying his supervisor’s instructions, a decision that was affirmed by a Superior Court. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, saying his actions did not constitute willful misconduct because his actions were not of a “quasi criminal nature…”

The Supreme Court found that the appellate court erred in its ruling, noting the proper interpretation of a 1993 decision defining willful misconduct is “an intentional and deliberate action done either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.” The Supreme Court said it did not have enough information to make a determination about whether willful misconduct had occurred. It remanded the case to the Board of Workers’ Compensation for further fact-finding.

Worker killed by exploding shell can only claim comp – Illinois

An employee was killed by the explosion of a live mortar shell that had been transferred from the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California to the Totall Metal Recycling’s (TMR) facility in Granite City. The lawsuit alleged the employer acted intentionally in transporting dangerous materials, but not that the company acted intentionally in injuring the employee. As such, the judge noted any allegation of TMR’s intent to injure the employee would fly in the face of the complaint, which alleges a claim of negligence. Thus, the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp barred the wrongful death claim. Muenstermann v. United States

Exclusive remedy bars negligence suit for borrowed worker – Illinois

An employee of a temporary staffing agency was assigned to work for Lindoo Installations Inc. and suffered a partial amputation of his right index finger when it was trapped between a bundle of shelving and a forklift. He filed for workers’ comp with the staffing agency and filed a negligence claim against Lindoo. While the trial court granted Lindoo’s motion for summary judgment under the exclusive remedy provision, the employee appealed arguing that the staffing agency’s branch manager periodically checked in.

The appeals court affirmed the decision, noting Lindoo met several factors that determine a borrowed employee relationship and qualified as a borrowing employer because it had the right to direct and control the employee’s work. TerranceFalge v. Lindoo Installations Inc.

Undocumented worker due benefits – Kansas

In Mera-Hernandez v. U.S.D. 233, the court found the injuries suffered by an undocumented school custodian were compensable even though she used a false name and submitted falsified documents to the school district when she was hired. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling that her immigration status does not dispute the work she performed for the school district and she fits the broad definition of employee under the law.

Clarifying Schoemehl window, court awards widow comp benefits – Missouri

For a very brief time, Missouri espoused a rule, known as the “Schoemehl doctrine,” that allowed for a permanently and totally disabled worker’s weekly benefits to be passed on to his dependents upon his death. The doctrine is limited to claims that were in existence as of January 2007, the date of the Supreme Court’s decision in Schoemehl v. Treasurer, and had not yet been fully resolved by June 2008, when the legislature then abrogated the doctrine.

In Ogden v. Conagra Foods, Ogden suffered serious injuries to his skull and spine in a 2001 motor vehicle accident and collected more than $2.4 million in benefits until his death in 2014. In 2009, the Ogden’s attorney filed a Form 21 Claim for Compensation for the employee and his wife. After Ogden died, his wife demanded payment on her claim for Schoemehl benefits.

The Industrial Commission determined she was entitled to payment, and Conagra appealed. The Court of Appeals approved benefits, explaining it didn’t matter that the wife’s claim for Schoemehl benefits wasn’t filed within the window of January 2007 to June 2008 because the claim was open and active during this time.

 

Credibility of doctors’ conflicting testimony weighed in appeal – Nebraska

In Hintz v. Farmers Cooperative Association, a worker was injured when a tire exploded, but he did not seek medical care and returned to work after a day-and-a-half absence. About three weeks after the accident, he tripped on the stairs at home and sought medical attention, which revealed a labral tear and other problems with his hip. His physician took him off work and performed surgery, and Farmers’ Cooperative terminated him after several months’ absence.

The worker filed a workers’ comp claim, and his physician testified although the worker had given inconsistent accounts about whether the hip injury was caused by the explosion at work or the trip down the stairs, when he performed surgery he observed a serious labral tear that seemed more likely to have been caused by the workplace explosion. An IME disagreed, testifying the injury was more likely caused by the fall down the stairs.

The Workers’ Compensation Court denied the claim, finding the IME’s testimony to be more reliable, but the Court of Appeals overturned, noting the treating physician had personally seen the extent of the injury during surgery.

Country club worker can proceed with lawsuit after general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club – New York

A country club employee whose left testicle was surgically removed after the club’s general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club is entitled to sue for damages beyond workers’ compensation benefits ruled an appellate court. The locker-room attendant was observing the assembly of golf clubs in the pro shop when the general manager entered and picked up a golf club shaft and struck him in the testicle, then left the room laughing.

The employee and his wife sued the general manager, who sought dismissal of the case based on workers’ comp exclusive remedy. The Court concluded that questions of fact existed as to whether the general manager acted in a ‘grossly negligent and/or reckless’ manner when he swung the golf club shaft and struck the employee and whether the country club condoned the action, thus the civil case can proceed. Montgomery v. Hackenburg.

Blackout caused by non-work conditions does not prohibit benefits – New York

In Nuclear Diagnostic Products, 116 NYWCLR 211, the New York Workers’ Compensation Board awarded benefits to a driver, who crashed his work vehicle after losing consciousness. The driver reported that he started coughing due to an asthmatic reaction to a new air freshener in his house and lost control of the car. The Board explained that since the driver’s accident occurred in the course of his employment he was entitled to a presumption that the accident arose out of his employment and that the driving of the employer’s vehicle was an added risk of employment.

Severe disability from Legionnaires’ Disease compensable – Pennsylvania

An employee of Nestle’s New Jersey office did most of his work in Pennsylvania performing maintenance on beverage machines. He fell ill, was hospitalized, lapsed into a coma, and was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease. The illness left him wheelchair-bound, affected his speech, and the treatment he received may have caused brain damage. Nestle denied the allegations that he contracted the disease while working on fountain and soda drink machines that contained contaminated water, and argued the disease was not a result of work-related exposure. After testimony from a number of personal witnesses and medical experts, a workers’ comp judge determined that the employee was temporarily totally disabled and entitled to workers’ comp benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. Nestle USA Inc./Vitality vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board

Seasonal worker difficult to prove – Pennsylvania

Two recent decisions of the Commonwealth Court illustrate how difficult it is for an employer to establish that a worker is a seasonal employee. While there is a specific formula for calculating the average wage when a worker is engaged in an “exclusively seasonal” occupation, the law does not provide a definition for the term. The controlling standard comes from a 1927 Supreme Court case which declared seasonal occupations are “those vocations which cannot, from their very nature, be continuous or carried on throughout the year, but only during fixed portions of it.”

In Toigo Orchards v. WCAB (Gaffney), a tractor driver who was hired for a single apple harvest doesn’t fall within the “exclusively seasonal” category. The argument was that the injured employee was “itinerant agricultural labor,” a tractor driver, and that short-term employment is not synonymous with seasonal work. Had he been treated as a seasonal employee his weekly benefits would have been only $31.99, compared to $315.90 weekly, which he was awarded.

In Lidey v. WCAB (Tropical Amusements), a carnival ride fabricator wasn’t an “exclusively seasonal” employee, even though his employer did business only during the summer months. He was awarded $917 per week, based on his weekly wage of $2,000.

Philadelphia Eagles must pay workers’ comp and a penalty for failing to report player’s injury – Pennsylvania

A defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles ruptured his right Achilles tendon during the team’s training camp and underwent surgery and PT until he became a free agent. The team paid for his treatment and surgery and paid his regular salary until his contract expired, but failed to file workers’ comp documents. As a free agent, he rehabilitated at a private facility, which the team paid for, and ruptured his left Achilles tendon and the team paid for the surgery, but he paid for the rehabilitation. He filed for disability benefits and the team argued it should not be responsible for the second injury because it was not work related.

A workers’ compensation judge, and on appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, ruled that the Eagles violated regulations by failing to report his first injury and awarded the claim petition as well as a 50 percent penalty to be paid by his employer on past-due compensation. The Eagles argued it was “not practically possible” to report every injury that occurs as a workers’ compensation claim as they see between 800 to 1,000 injuries during the season and practice. They file workers’ compensation claims only when players need treatment beyond what can be treated in the training facility, and they file NCPs on request.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Seven in ten employers impacted by employee prescription drug use

Seventy-one percent of U.S. employers say drug use among employees has impacted their business, but only 19% of them have comprehensive workplace drug policies in place, according to a survey by the National Safety Council (NSC). While 57% test their employees for drugs, only 41% screen for synthetic opioids – the kind of prescriptions usually found in medicines cabinets and increasingly available on the black market.

The types of incidents experienced in the workplace as the result of prescription drug use are: 39% absenteeism; 39% workers have been caught taking drugs while on the clock; 32% a positive drug test indicated use; 29% a worker had been found to be impaired or showed decreased work output; 29% a family member complained; 22% another employee complained to human resources; 15% an injury or near-miss occurred; and 14% an employee was caught selling drugs in the workplace.

“Employers must understand that the most dangerously misused drug today may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, said in a statement. “Even when they are taken as prescribed, prescription drugs and opioids can impair workers and create hazards on the job.” Cognitive impairments and physical pain masked by prescription drugs can make employees engage in riskier behaviors and reduce response time.

 

What employers can do

Develop a drug-free workplace policy, including prescription drugs

Most employers have a drug-free workplace policy directed at illegal drugs and an alcohol abuse policy, but most don’t have a prescription drug policy. Since prescription drugs are legal, it’s been difficult to craft a policy, but many addictions begin with legal prescriptions. Even when taken as prescribed, they can impair workers and create hazards on the job.

The NSC provides a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers create prescription drug policies and manage opioid use at work. The kit recommends actions including:

  • Define the employee’s role in making the workplace safe. A drug-free workplace program (DFWP) should state what employees must do if they are prescribed medications that carry a warning label or may cause impairment. The employer can create a plan around not operating vehicles or machinery while the prescription is in use. The DFWP should also spell out the steps an employer will take if it suspects a worker is using certain medications without a prescription, in larger doses than prescribed, or more frequently than prescribed.
  • Add prescription drug testing to illicit drug testing. Working with legal counsel, the employer should decide if additional testing is warranted for pre-employment screening, or for pre-duty, periodic, at random, post-incident, reasonable suspicion, return-to-duty, or follow-up situations.
  • List the procedures or corrective actions the employer will follow when an employee is suspected of misusing prescription drugs or for an employee with confirmed prescription drug abuse.
  • Obtain legal advice. An attorney experienced in DFWP issues should review the policy before it’s finalized.
  • Train supervisory staff and educate employees. Educate managers and supervisors about prescription drug abuse and what to do if they suspect an employee has a problem. Training also is an underused tool that companies can use to make employees aware of the risks and signs of prescription drug misuse, along with company policies.
  • Review service coverage for behavioral health and/or employee assistance program (EAP) needs. Evaluate the behavioral health portions of health insurance policies and EAP contracts to ensure employees are covered for abuse of prescription drugs.

 

Work with insurers to cover alternative approaches

Hersman advised employers to work with their insurers to cover alternative therapies so that employees can avoid taking opioids or other addictive medications for chronic pain. Alternative therapies include acupuncture, guided imagery, chiropractic treatment, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, and others.

While 88 percent of survey respondents were interested in their health insurer covering alternative pain treatments, only 30 percent indicated they would not act on that interest by negotiating expanded coverage with insurers.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

Legal Corner

ADA

Case to watch: Do employers have to offer disabled employees reassignment to another job if there are more qualified candidates?

In December, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) ruled in EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital Inc. that the ADA “does not automatically mandate reassignment without competition.” The ruling conflicts with other appellate court decisions, and legal experts speculate that it is an issue likely to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital had a best-qualified applicant policy in place and the court found the ADA only requires that an employer allow the disabled employee to compete equally for a vacant position. The EEOC argued that the hospital violated the ADA by requiring the nurse to compete for a vacant position she was qualified to perform. The court stated, “[p]assing over the best-qualified applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficient or good performance.” Further “‘the ADA was never intended to turn nondiscrimination into discrimination’ against the non-disabled.”

The conflicting appellate court rulings on the issue means employers’ obligations will vary depending on the circuit in which they operate.

Broken arm can be considered disability

A U.S. District Court refused to dismiss a discrimination charge filed by a worker who was terminated after she continued to need accommodations for her broken arm, a work-related injury. She worked for Kingsport, Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical and tripped and fell and broke her arm, requiring two surgeries. The company put her on light-duty assignment but eventually terminated her arguing it could not accommodate her temporary activity restrictions on an ongoing basis because there were several essential job duties she could not perform. The worker filed suit under the ADA.

The court refused to dismiss her case noting, “pertinent inquiry is not whether plaintiff’s restrictions were labeled ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent’ or the precise length of time she was under restrictions, but whether she was essentially limited in a major life activity.”

 

FMLA

Failure to provide a fragrance-free work environment does not equate to a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation

In Alanis v. Metra, an employee began suffering from a variety of fragrance-sensitivity symptoms such as difficulty breathing and speaking after ten years on the job. She was seen by her employer’s medical provider who concluded that she could return to work but gave her 30 days to obtain a psychological clearance exam. A week later, she again experienced symptoms and claimed that she was unable to speak and could only communicate through text messages, in writing or by whispering and was determined to be “medically disqualified” from working.

She took FMLA leave and a few months later her treating physician released her to work. However, she had not had the psychological clearance exam and when she did she was diagnosed as having a fragrance sensitivity, but was allowed to return to work a few months later.

The company made every effort to accommodate her requests for accommodation, which included flexible work hours, a modified dress code, limitation on extended talking, periodic rest breaks, self-paced work-load, and efforts to create a fragrance-free workplace. But she was not satisfied and filed suit, alleging discrimination based on the fact that she was Hispanic and retaliated against because of her disability.

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that there was no evidence of discrimination or retaliation because no adverse employment action was taken. Furthermore, the Court found that the company had gone above and beyond to grant her requests for accommodation, specifically noting the changes made to reduce the existence of odors in the workplace.

Workers’ Compensation

Court supports DWC action suspending providers linked to fraudulent activities from workers’ comp system – California

Chiropractor Michael Barri, his company, Tri-Star Medical Group, and a newly formed nonprofit called the Coalition for Sensible Workers’ Compensation Reforms, filed a constitutional challenge seeking a peremptory or alternative writ of mandate blocking the state from suspending providers from the workers’ comp system and staying their medical liens when the providers are linked to fraudulent activities. Barri pled guilty to receiving illegal kickbacks to refer patients to Pacific Hospital during the spinal surgery kickback scheme.

The First District Court of Appeal took only two days in rejecting the request. The Division of Workers’ Compensation is moving to suspend providers and stay liens under new authority granted to it by the passage last year of SB 1160 and AB 1244.

EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues should be considered – Florida

In Hillsborough County School Board v. Kubik, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a Judge of Compensation Claims erred in refusing to consider the opinion of an expert medical advisor (EMA) as to the cause of a worker’s need for medical treatment, and in denying the worker temporary total disability benefits. While the EMA had not been asked to evaluate the major contribution cause of the need for ongoing treatment, the court noted an EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues is admissible but not afforded a presumption of correctness.

Former Congressman collecting $100,000 annually in workers’ comp for bipolar disorder – Illinois

According to the Chicago Tribune, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who was convicted of looting thousands of dollars from his campaign fund, is receiving a little more than $100,000 in worker’s compensation payments. Quoting Chicago attorney Barry Schatz, who is representing Jackson in a divorce proceeding, the article notes that the benefits are temporary total disability for bipolar disorder and depression.

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act gives workers’ compensation benefits for disability “due to personal injury or disease sustained while in the performance of duty,” the Labor Department said. An employment lawyer speculated that Congressman Jackson’s attorneys convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress,

Inadequate urine sample did not constitute drug test refusal – Kansas

An employee who was struck in the left arm by an object while grinding a piece of metal was treated at an emergency room and returned to his employer to submit a post-injury urine sample. However, he did not provide enough urine to complete the test and the test administrator threw it away.

Lower courts found that the employee forfeited his benefits by failing to complete the drug test, however the appeals court disagreed. Kansas workers’ comp law says that “refusal to submit to a chemical test at the request of the employer shall result in the forfeiture of” workers’ comp benefits if the employer “had sufficient cause to suspect the use of alcohol or drugs by the claimant or if the employer’s policy clearly authorizes post-injury testing.” The court found no evidence that the employee had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident and had volunteered to take a drug test while he was at the hospital. Kelley v. Aldine Indep. Sch. Dist., 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 829 (Jan. 31, 2017)

Psychologist’s testimony valid in workers’ comp denial – Minnesota

In Gianotti v. I.S.D. 152, A16-0629, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) that the opinion of a psychologist was inadequate to support the denial of a worker’s claim for mental conditions allegedly caused by a concussion and post-concussive syndrome. The employee worked as a school bus monitor and fell and hit her head when the bus stopped short unexpectedly. Medical tests did not reveal a concussion, but she continued to complain of headaches, confusion, and memory problems and eventually sought psychiatric treatment.

While a judge denied the claim for a variety of emotional and psychological conditions, the WCCA questioned the competence of the psychologist as an expert witness, an issue that was not raised on appeal, and awarded benefits. The Supreme Court overturned this ruling noting the scope of the jurisdiction of the WCCA is limited to the issues raised by parties in their notices of appeal and that the psychologist’s opinion had as solid a factual foundation as any other expert in this case.

 

Failure to find work does not mean unemployable – Mississippi

The employee was a grinder and injured his right hand. Following an operation, he was released to work with restrictions, which did not allow him to work as a grinder. He performed largely janitorial and maintenance duties, but at one point was asked to operate a forklift. This irritated the hand and his physician advised him not to do so. When he was asked again, he refused to do so, and was placed on leave and given three days to obtain a written work restriction.

When he did not produce the work restriction, he was fired for insubordination. He filed a petition seeking a higher permanent medical impairment and eventually received a 50% loss rating, which he argued was too low given his permanent work restrictions. However, the Court of Appeals found that he was able to do other substantial job duties and had worked for almost a year after he was declared to have reached maximum medical improvement. Although he had been unsuccessful in finding another job after he was let go, this did not mean that he was unemployable. Harold Hathorn v. ESCO Corporation

Worker fired for failing to report medical only claim can collect unemployment – Mississippi

Although most states protect workers once they are hired from being fired if they file a comp claim, Mississippi does not. In Bedford Care Center of Marion v. Nicholson, the question for the Court of Appeals was whether unemployment benefits are available to a worker who was fired for having misrepresented her claims history. In a previous job, the worker received medical care for her injury in the hospital emergency room, but no indemnity benefits and she argued she did not realize medical benefits were workers’ comp.

While lower courts found she was fired for misconduct and not entitled to unemployment benefits, the Court of Appeals concluded that her inaccurate answers did not rise to the level of “willful and wanton” misconduct necessary to forfeit her entitlement to unemployment benefits.

Employee may sue colleague for work accident – Missouri

A restaurant worker climbed an A-frame ladder into a lofted space at the restaurant and while she was working there, a coworker removed the ladder. The coworker returned the ladder, but did not fully open and lock it. The ladder collapsed and the worker fell and injured her hand, elbow, and shoulder.

While the St. Louis County Circuit Court dismissed a negligence lawsuit, a three-judge panel of the appellate court disagreed, noting that a 2005 amendment to Missouri’s workers comp law “only gives employers immunity against tort claims for work-related injuries and does not afford such immunity to co-employees.”

Suicide bars survivor benefits – Nebraska

A woman who overdosed on drugs prescribed in connection with a workplace injury is not eligible for workers’ compensation survivor benefits, a state appeals court ruled. For five years, she was taking the opioids oxycodone and methadone, along with the sedative Xanax. Shortly before her death, she was told she would lose custody of her daughter and she no longer could live with relatives. She was overheard saying, “I just as well end it all.”

The trial court ruled that the overdose constituted “willful negligence and thus barred any recovery of benefits,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Michael B. v. Northfield Retirement Communities

Medical marijuana reimbursement required for comp claim – New Jersey

In Watson v. 84 Lumber, a New Jersey administrative law judge ordered Beaumont, California-based 84 Lumber Co. to reimburse one of its injured workers for medical marijuana prescribed for neuropathic pain in his left hand after an injury suffered while using a power saw at a lumber plant. The medical marijuana was being used to help wean the worker off of opioids. This is a division level case, so this decision is not binding on other New Jersey courts.

Other states that have allowed comp payments for medical marijuana include New Mexico, Maine, Connecticut and Minnesota. In most of these cases, physicians only recommended marijuana after other treatment regimens for chronic pain were attempted without success.

Cautious language of medical expert dooms claim for stress-related stroke – New York

In Matter of Qualls v Bronx Dist. Attorney’s Office, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 409, a state appellate court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Board’s determination that a worker did not sustain a causally related disability resulting from his stroke because his physician repeatedly used cautious and indeterminate language, such as stress “may have been” or “could’ve been a contributory factor.” While the court acknowledged that the law did not require that medical opinions be expressed with absolute or reasonable medical certainty, the expert must signify a probability as to the cause and his or her opinion must be supported by a rational basis.

“Last act” in employment contract key in determining workers’ comp jurisdiction – North Carolina

An Oklahoma-based union hall of a welder who lived in North Carolina sent her a notification to report to an assignment in Texas, where she was to undergo a drug test and complete forms when she arrived. The North Carolina Industrial Commission ruled it did not have jurisdiction to hear her injury claim since her injury occurred outside North Carolina and under North Carolina’s “last act” test, her employment contract was made in Texas, and not in North Carolina. Submission to the drug test was more than an administrative formality, had she not passed, she would not have been hired. Holmes v. Associated Pipe Line Contrs., 2017 N.C. App. LEXIS 52

Off-duty convenience store clerk due comp benefits – Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth Court panel has ruled that a convenience store clerk who is permanently disabled is eligible for workers’ compensation after being shot several times while sitting in his supervisor’s parked car outside of the store after the pair had just closed up shop. Earlier in the week, he had called the police on a shoplifter, whose relatives threatened retaliation, so his supervisor had been driving him home.

The Commonwealth Court panel upheld the decision of the workers’ compensation judge, saying that the shooting was retaliation-related. The court also said that the spot he was parked in constituted the employer’s property, at a location that was a reasonable means of access and egress to employer’s store, and he was within the course and scope of employment while he was in the car.

Exception to going and coming rule applies for sick employee – Pennsylvania

In Lutheran Senior Services Management Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Miller), the Director of Maintenance for a nursing home had a serious motor vehicle accident while going into work. At times he was called in for emergencies and received “comp time.” On this particular day, he was sick and planned to call in, but his employer called that a security camera had malfunctioned and needed to be fixed and no one else was available to do so.

While the carrier denied the claim arguing that he was commuting, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition, noting “Claimant was sick on March 13, 2014, and except for the special need of the Employer to assure [that the] surveillance cameras became operative . . . Claimant would not have gone to work.” This would represent an exception to the “coming and going rule.” Upon appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), affirmed the decision of the WCJ but felt the facts represented more “special circumstances” than a “special mission,” but, still met an exception to the “coming and going rule.” The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

Third party recovery limited to injuries caused by negligence – Pennsylvania

In Serrao v. WCAB (Ametek Inc.), the Commonwealth Court ruled that an employer is not entitled to recovery of the full amount of its comp lien from a worker’s settlement unless the employer can prove the third party was responsible for all of the worker’s compensable injuries. An employee, wearing protective overalls, suffered burns when a can of powder ignited and caused a flash fire. The employee filed a third party suit against the manufacturer of the coveralls and received a $2.7 million settlement, and the employer asserted a lien against the recovery for all of its costs related to the injury.

There was a dispute if the costs related to burns to his hands and head caused by the melting of his gloves, face shield and hood should be included. The case made its way to the Commonwealth Court that concluded an employer has the burden of proving its obligation to pay comp benefits was caused by the negligence of the third-party tortfeasor and that the tortfeasor’s payment of damages are for the same injuries for which the employer paid benefits.

How a carrier can exercise its subrogation rights – Pennsylvania

In The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen vs. Kafumba Kamara, Thrifty Car Rental, and Rental Car Finance Group, the court considered how a carrier could go after a culpable third party. A carrier wanting to exercise its subrogation rights cannot force the issue by bringing a third party action on its own. Chen was waiting to rent a car in the Thrifty Car rental parking lot when Kamara accidentally hit her with one of Thrifty’s rental vehicles. Through her employer’s workers’ comp, Hartford paid almost $60,000 in medical and wage benefits. The Hartford filed a tort action against Kamara and Thrifty, asserting their negligence was responsible for Chen’s injuries, but Chen had not assigned her cause of action to Hartford and was not a party to the lawsuit.

Although a judge dismissed Hartford’s complaint, the Superior Court ruled that the case could proceed. The court noted that the Hartford was not pursuing a subrogation claim on its own behalf – it was seeking to establish the defendants’ liability to Chen. Because the carrier also was not limiting its requested recovery to the value of its subrogation claim, the court reasoned that it was not impermissibly “splitting” the cause of action Chen would have had. It’s important for carriers to use the right language in the complaint to make it clear that it is bringing the employee’s suit.

In this case, Chen is cooperating with Hartford’s effort to obtain recovery, but did not want to pursue the claim on her own. Such action could be more difficult in cases where a recalcitrant employee does not want to cooperate.

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