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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Jungle Called Workers’ Comp

Almost a century ago Upton Sinclair authored The Jungle. It is the story of the dangerous work of the meatpacking industry. In a very comprehensive report, “The Speed Kills You,” published by Nebraska Appleseed 2009, the stark realities of the failures of the workers’ compensation system are exposed.

Nebraska Appleseed (Appleseed) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public interest law project.  Their principles: “core values, common ground, and equal justice,” guide their mission. Appleseed recruited many scholars, professionals, and community leaders, to assist in the production of the report.

The failings described by the report, while targeted to Nebraska’s meatpacking industry, have universal application and the consequences dramatically reveal the domino effect of an imploding system that has been run off the road and been flung into the ditch.

Appleseed reports that in Nebraska, where 20% of the US meat is processed, the workplace remains a jungle.  After conducting an extensive survey, with input from both employers, employees, academicians and practitioners, the non-profit group reported that deadly speed on the meat packaging line has resulted in an increase in the amount of injuries that go unreported because of employees’ fear of harassment by employers.

The meatpackers, many undocumented workers, suffer from repetitive motion injures caused by working in awkward positions all day.  Their language barrier, lack of knowledge of legal remedies, unfamiliarity with workers’ compensation benefit procedures, further complicate their ability to seek redress.

The noble goals envisioned by the national workers’ compensation system were to provide a summary and remedial benefit to injured workers. The cost of benefits was to be passed onto to the consumer. Safety was not addressed. Unfortunately, it is not a punitive system geared to make the workplace safer. Since its inception in 1911, it has lacked the necessary elements to create an economic incentive for employers to increase safety in the workplace.

The issues identified by the Nebraska study are mirrored throughout the country. Employees lack adequate information about the workers’ compensation, they continue to be subjected to poor ergonomic conditions, inspections by OSHA have been few and far between, and discrimination against employees and a challenge to their dignity continues. There are few penalties imposed against employers for delay and denial of claims. The system has become convoluted, dilatory, and litigious in nature. It now forces an employee to battle a system that blames them for getting hurt.

The workers’ compensation jungle described by the Appleseed report must finally be tamed. Employees should no longer be treated merely as beasts of burden. Injured workers should have their dignity restored. The Appleseed recommendations should be addressed and the entire system, including medical benefit delivery, be improved. To make the workplace jungle safer, employers must be held accountable for the unreasonable actions taken only for their pecuniary gain.
To read more about medical benefits & workers' compensation click here.