Recently in History Category

March 22, 2013

 

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Did you ever hear of rose gardener's disease, nun's chastity of fiddler's neck?
All apparent names for occupational maladies of yesteryear. Watch this fascinating short video clip charting 10 strange occupational hazards.

Some of these conditions are associated with professions that are confined to the dustbins of history - becoming a loblolly boy isn't a career path for young boys anymore. And some of these conditions may still exist, they are likely just rebranded. Others may have just adapted to modern tastes - cheesemaker's lung may be largely a hazard of the past, but unfortunately, Popcorn Lung is not.

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October 2, 2012

 
"Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success."

That is the ad that was allegedly posted to attract crew to Sir Ernest Shackelton's Arctic Expedition on the Nimrod in 1907-09. There's been a lot written about this adventure to one of the then-most remote corners of the earth. It is still among the most remote wilderness locations today - contemporary workers who agree to stint at Antarctic bases have to prepare for a long haul since some locations only afford a two to three month window when bases are reachable.

A few years ago, when Gavin Francis accepted the position as a medical doctor 'wintering' at Halley Base, a profoundly isolated research station on the Caird Coast of Antarctica, he had to plan accordingly since the base is unreachable for ten months of the year. He's written a pretty fascinating article in Granta magazine comparing the preparations he took in terms of supplying a medical kit with the list of supplies in Shackleton's Medical Kit.

"In the well-stocked polar section of the little base library I unearthed the packing list for Shackleton's medical kit - the drugs and dressings he took on the sledge trips of his Nimrod Expedition of 1907, the one that turned back only ninety-seven miles from the South Pole. It added up to a weight of about three kilos, less than a sixth of the modern kit, and to my technomedical mind read more like a witch's grimoire than the best medical advice of just a century ago."

It's a pretty fascinating read, one that we think might tickle the fancy of occupational physicians. We enjoyed the author's observations about how the practice of medicine has changed, particularly in regards to the challenges of caring for a workforce in a remote location.

Chances are, no matter how remote your workplace, planning for employee health and safety program doesn't have quite the same extremes in parameters. But one thing remains true: advance planning can still mean the difference between life and death; knowing how to respond quickly can be the difference between a relatively minor event and a life-changing tragedy.

What's the status of your workplace first aid kit?
In Fundamentals of a Workplace First-Aid Program (PDF), OSHA suggests:

"Employers should make an effort to obtain estimates of EMS response times for all permanent and temporary locations and for all times of the day and night at which they have workers on duty, and they should use that information when planning their first-aid program. When developing a workplace first-aid program, consultation with the local fire and rescue service or emergency medical professionals may be helpful for response time information and other program issues."
The booklet outlines OSHA Requirements, recommended First-Aid Supplies, including Automated External Defibrillators, guidance on First-Aid Courses and Elements of a First-Aid Training Program. In addition to evaluating their own organization's risk factors, employers should be aware of any state laws governing workplace first aid.


ANSI/ISEA Z308.1-2009 is the current minimum performance requirements for first aid kits and their supplies that are intended for use in various work environments. You can purchase these through the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) or the International Safety Equipment Association (ISEA). If you want to save a few dollars, you may be able to find a free copy, such as the one we found minimum contents list from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry.

Automated external defibrillators (AEDs) programs are an increasingly common component in a workplace health and safety program to address sudden cardiac arrest. These programs require some medical guidance and training to put in place.

Arguably, one of the most parts of your emergency planning should be to prepare your employees and your supervisors about what to do in the case of a medical emergency. Put your policies and protocols writing and communicate them to your employees frequently. Don't forget to include solitary and remote workers in your emergency planning.

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September 4, 2012

 

As a belated tribute to Labor Day, we offer a smorgasbord of items about work, worker safety, and some of our favorite tributes to workers.

Celebrating the American Worker
America at Work - Alan Taylor compiles superlative photo essays for The Atlantic's In Focus series. This collection of images from the recent Recession and its years of uncertainty -- of men and women both at work and out of work in the United States.

Earl Dotter, Photojournalist - A remarkable portfolio of work documenting American workers. In the author's words:
"For more than thirty five years the camera had enabled me to do meaningful work. Starting with Appalachian coal miners, and continuing through the years over a broad array of occupations in all regions of the country, I have observed and documented the working lives of Americans. Standing behind the lens, I have celebrated their accomplishments. I seek out those who are taking steps to improve their lives and their effectiveness at work, and use the camera to engage them by giving testimony to their achievements. The images that result tell of the satisfactions their work brings as well as its everyday challenges."

Lost Labor - For more than 20 years, visual artist Raymon Elozua has been assembling a vast collection of company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures that document America's industrial history. This site features 155 photos from that collection - images of factories, machinery, and laborers hard at work. Many of the jobs depicted have faded into history. The artist grew up in the South Side of Chicago in the shadow of the giant steel mills and factories. His dad worked at U.S. Steel and his first job was at U.S. Steel, triggering a life long interest in everything about these industrial behemoths, from the architecture to the people who worked the jobs within. His interest in documenting this bygone era of American working life was sparked by the demise of the South Works industries.

Worker Safety
Hard Labor - The Center for Public Integrity says: "Each year, some 4,500 American workers die on the job and 50,000 perish from occupational diseases. Millions more are hurt and sickened at workplaces, and many others are cheated of wages and abused. In the coming months the Center for Public Integrity will publish, under the banner Hard Labor, stories exploring threats to workers -- and the corporate and regulatory factors that endanger them."

In particular, we point you to two recent stories:
Fishing deaths mount, but government slow to cast safety net for deadliest industry

Kentucky death case: Another black eye for state workplace safety enforcement

The Best Reporting on Worker Safety - ProPublica compiled "12 pieces of great reporting on workplace safety: from slaughterhouse diseases to lax regulatory oversight and deadly vats of chocolate."

Workers in Popular Culture

From our archives

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May 14, 2012

 

We begin the week on a somewhat bizarre note, as Donald Duck does safety in this vintage 1959 cartoon clip entitled "How to Have an Accident at Work." When it comes to safety, Donald is everyone's nightmare worker. For those of us in the workers comp field, this may seem more horror film than cartoon, but Donald, unlike ordinary workers, is literally indestructible.

This clip was a sequel to "How to Have an Accident in the Home"

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April 20, 2012

 

In an era when one death per million dollars spent on bridge construction was axiomatic, chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge Joseph Strauss decided his project would be different. He refused to accept the conventional wisdom that worker deaths were just a normal cost of doing business and introduced a series of safety innovations - you can see an overview in this brief video clip:

More on his commitment to safety during construction is presented in the PBS American Experience documentary "Golden Gate Bridge." Perhaps the innovation that was most touted was the introduction of a safety net, "... similar to a circus net -- suspended under the bridge. The safety net extended ten feet wider than the bridge's width and fifteen feet further than the roadway's length." While there was one deadly accident when a scaffold platform fell and broke through the net resulting in 10 fatalities, there is no doubt the net saved many other lives. Nineteen survivors whose falls were stopped by the net became de facto members of "The Halfway to Hell Club."

Strauss employed many other fascinating safety innovations, ranging from sauerkraut juice "cures" for men suffering from hangovers to special hand and face cream to protect against winds. But next to safety nets, the other noteworthy safety practice that emerged during the bridge's construction was the reliance on hard hats. The hard hats of the era were called "hard-boiled hats," and were made of leather and canvas. You can read more about the history of the hard hat at the Bullard site. Edward W. Bullard first introduced the hats in 1919, based on a doughboy hat he had worn in WWI. His hats were originally created to protect miners. The Bullard history says:

America's first designated "Hard Hat Area" was set up at the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge construction site. "The project's chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, shared a vision with my grandfather that the workplace could be a safer environment for the worker. One problem the bridge project faced was falling rivets, which could cause serious injury," said Bullard. "My grandfather transformed the mining helmet into a durable industrial hard hat."

We would be remiss if we did not note that the status of being "the first official hard-hat area" is under some dispute - some contest that the Hoover Dam construction was the first work site to mandate hard hats:

The Bullard Company asserts that the first official "Hard Hat Area" was the Golden Gate Bridge project in San Francisco. The project's chief engineer, Joseph B. Strauss, beginning on January 5, 1933, directed all the workers to wear hard hats to protect themselves from falling rivets and other materials. However, the Six Companies constructing Hoover Dam first required all its workers to wear hard hats by November 1931.

Here's a picture of the vintage "Bollard hard boiled hats" of the era, courtesy of Hal's Lamp Post, a site with an excellent and very interesting collection of mining artifacts.


Original image source

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April 3, 2012

 

vintage photo of ambulance and injured worker

We're happy to bring you this 12-minute, must-watch video commemorating the 100th Anniversary of Workers Comp. The video highlights progress in worker safety, treatment of injured workers and risk management in the past 100 years. In addition to telling the history of comp, it also features three visionary women who were instrumental in furthering health and safety of workers...one of whom witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Until this clip, I did not realize the strong role that women played in this history.

Kudos go to Sedgwick as well as to our colleague and friend Peter Rousmaniere. who wrote the script.

Here's some additional information about the women highlighted in the video clip:
Crystal Eastman
Frances Perkins
Alice Hamilton MD

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March 20, 2012

 

Today, we slip back in time to 1925 and put on our Flash Gordon glasses to speculate about the future, a time when a doctor not only "sees what is going on in the patient's room by means of a television screen" but also employs a robotic-like instrument called the Teledactyl (Tele, far; Dactyl, finger -- from the Greek) to "feel at a distance."

1925-feb-science-and-invention-sm-cover

This image and the story comes from a delightful Smithsonian blog called Paleofuture in a post entitled Telemedicine Predicted in 1925. The post discusses an article by Hugo Gernsback that appeared in the February, 1925 issue of Science and Invention. You can read more about the intriguing robotoic Teledactyl device and Gernsback's predictions for medicine of the future.

Fast forward to 2010, and we see how remarkably prescient Mr. Gernsback's predictions were. Courtesy of a blog comment by Christoph Hadnagy, we find this link to a New York Times story on Denmark Leads the Way in Digital Care, in which 77-year old patient Jens Danstrup talks about what it's like to be a telemedicine patient:

"You see how easy it is for me?" Mr. Danstrup said, sitting at his desk while video chatting with his nurse at Frederiksberg University Hospital, a mile away. "Instead of wasting the day at the hospital?"
He clipped an electronic pulse reader to his finger. It logged his reading and sent it to his doctor. Mr. Danstrup can also look up his personal health record online. His prescriptions are paperless -- his doctors enters them electronically, and any pharmacy in the country can pull them up. Any time he wants to get in touch with his primary care doctor, he sends an e-mail message.
All of this is possible because Mr. Danstrup lives in Denmark, a country that began embracing electronic health records and other health care information technology a decade ago.

Adoption of Electronic Health Records in the US
The Centers for Disease Control issues an annual survey on the use of electronic health records in physician's offices. Last year, partly bolstered by meaningful use incentives in the Affordable Care Act, use grew by 6%. Dr. Elliot King blogs on the EHR increase, noting that:

"In 2011, 57 percent of office-based doctors used electronic medical records/electronic health records (EMR/EHR), according to the CDC. That number compares to the 50.7 percent of physicians' offices using EMR/EHR's in 2010 and 48.3 percent in 2009."

Some physicians are also taking to telemedicine via Skype, FaceTime and other video conferencing services. In Doctors who Skype: Renegades or Heroes?, Jean Riggle looks at the pros and cons of video chat as used by physicians. She notes that there currently aren't any guidelines for electronic communication between physicians and patients and there there are several important questions yet to be solved:

  • How can these chats be integrated into the patient's medical record?
  • Can the actual video be captured and inserted into the record or should a summary of the call suffice?
  • How should physicians be reimbursed for the time they spend using social media?

To follow developments in telemedicine, we offer a few sources:
HealthIT.hhs.gov
Federal Health IT programs
American Telemedicine Association
iHelathBeat
Healthcare IT News

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June 30, 2011

 

We are about to observe the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. As is so often the case with holidays, the ways we celebrate will not have much to do with the original events. As we indulge in a weekend of family reunions, sporting events, cookouts, libations and fireworks - along with hours sitting in traffic - we are unlikely to give much thought to the conditions that led to the promulgation of that remarkable document. So as we prepare to hit the roads, let's take a moment to acknowledge two of the remarkable risk takers who helped make this all possible.

Let's begin with John Adams. He trained at Harvard to become a minister, but chafed at being told what to believe and what to think, so he became a lawyer instead. On March 5, 1770, six years before the formal break from England, an unruly mob gathered in front of Boston's Customs House. After pelting British troops with snowballs and rocks, the crowd surged forward; the troops fired into the mob, killing five people. From the colonial viewpoint, this was the "Boston Massacre." As far as the British were concerned, it was a riot. Both views are credible.

Unpopular Cause
Captain Thomas Preston and 12 soldiers were charged with murder. No Boston lawyer would take their case, so the plea was made to John Adams, who at the time was practicing law (not all that successfully) in Quincy, about 15 miles from Boston. Adams took on the case, at considerable personal risk. His words at the time should be taken to heart by any politician seeking a vote:

"Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence."

Under Adams' skillful defense, six of the soldiers were acquitted. Two who had fired directly into the crowd were charged with murder, but were convicted only of manslaughter. Adams was paid eighteen guineas by the British soldiers, or about the cost of a pair of shoes. Beyond the fee, Adams wanted to prove to the world that American justice was balanced and fair.

Self-Evident Truths
Just six years later Thomas Jefferson wrote - and Adams helped edit - the Declaration of Independence. After ratification of the final language (which, to Jefferson's chagrin, excluded a ban on the importation of slaves), a prayer was said and in silence the delegates to the convention applied their signatures to the document.

In the entire history of risk taking, there are few events of greater magnitude. The document would be considered treason by the most powerful government in the world; should the revolution fail - and that itself must have seemed highly likely - each signer would pay with his life, .

The Perspective of Time
One month before his death, Adams wrote of the upcoming July 4, 1826, festivities:

My best wishes, in the joys, and festivities, and the solemn services of that day on which will be completed the fiftieth year from its birth, of the independence of the United States: a memorable epoch in the annals of the human race, destined in future history to form the brightest or the blackest page, according to the use or the abuse of those political institutions by which they shall, in time to come, be shaped by the human mind.

Somber thoughts from one who was there at the beginning - and who would likely be appalled by some of the subsequent uses and abuses of his work.


As most Insider readers probably know, Adams and Jefferson both died on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day after the Declaration was issued. Adams desperately wanted to outlive Jefferson; just before he died, he said - perhaps bitterly - "Thomas Jefferson survives." Ironically, word had already gone out from Monticello that Jefferson had died earlier the same day. It is perhaps reassuring that such great souls could also be small minded and petty. There is still hope for us all.

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May 17, 2011

 

Illinois is struggling mightily with its bloated workers comp system. Currently ranked 3rd highest for overall cost in the Oregon study, the governor and legislature are under intense pressure from the business community to lower the cost of comp insurance. Aiming its powerful bulldozers at the state capital, the Caterpiller Company has threatened to move their business somewhere else if reforms are not implemented immediately. In exploring all options, the legislature has gone so far as to think the unthinkable: abolishing workers comp.

In looking for ways to save money, Illinois does what all states do: first, identify the cost drivers and then try to change the statute to bring down costs. Among the hot issues on the table are the medical fee schedule (too generous), employee choice of doctor (too flexible), duration of benefits (too long), causation (too vague). Ah, behind every cost driver is a vested interest (perhaps literally vested, with many of the lobbyists wearing three piece suits). The common denominator among all states struggling with high comp costs is the omni-present stakeholder, who is deeply committed to the status quo.

Governor Quinn would like to see a number of reforms, including the capping of carpal tunnel benefits, denying claims where employee intoxication is a significant factor, attacking fraud (see our blog on Illinois's dubious arbitration services), capping wage differential benefits at age 67 or five years after an injury, and implementing utilization review for physical therapy, chiropractic and occupational therapy services.

Going Nuclear
The Illinois legislature is so frustrated with the slow progress and with stakeholder resistance to change, they are now threatening to blow up the entire system. Interesting to note, this pressure is coming from the Democrats. John Bradley (D-Marion) has filed House 1032, a bill to repeal the workers comp act and send all workplace-injury issues into the court system. Should this happen, Illinois will find itself in the world prior to 1912, when injured workers had to sue their employers and could collect benefits only if their injuries were caused by someone other than themselves. They would collect no benefits while awaiting adjudication of their claims. They would be out of work and out of luck.

In all likelihood, repeal of workers comp is not a serious option in Illinois; it's a political strategy for getting the attention of inertia-bound legislators. But the prospect of abolition does raise an interesting issue. Workers comp came to America 100 years ago. By the end of the World War II, every state had implemented the program.

What if there were no workers comp programs today? What if each state were starting from the beginning and tackling the issue of protection for injured workers? I find it hard to imagine that state legislatures would be willing to implement a program, totally funded by employers, that provides indemnity for lost wages and 100 percent medical benefits for injured workers. Why so generous? Why so inclusive? It's too expensive. It will create disincentives for working. The cost will drive employers out of business or out of state.

With today's acrimonious, ideology-driven debates, workers comp would be a hard sell. That's too bad, for despite its problems and inequities, despite the wide variations in benefits and costs from state to state, comp is a compelling example of effective social engineering. In Illinois, cooler heads will likely avoid the meltdown option. To be sure, Illinois comp is a mess, but the alternative - a workplace without workers comp - would be far worse.

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March 8, 2011

 

Later this month, we will mark the 100 year anniversary of New York's horrific Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, an event that claimed the lives of 146 garment workers - young girls and women - who had been locked in the sweatshop to prevent theft. Most died in stairwells, jumping down the single elevator shaft, or by hurtling themselves from 9th story windows in desperate attempts to escape the fire. PBS recently ran a special on this disaster. (If you missed it, you can watch online: Triangle Fire). My colleague Jon Coppelman has also written about the fire in his post The Original "No Exit".

This fire was a watershed event that galvanized the nation. It occurred in an era where there were no regulations or labor protections. Workers often worked 12 hour shifts, 7 days a week. There were no child labor laws or safety mandates. Ironically, the day before the Triangle Fire, New York courts had struck down the state's first compulsory workers compensation law as unconstitutional.

This tragedy, along with some of the horrific mine disasters that resulted in wholesale loss of life, were catalysts which led to the enactment of various worker protections - including statutory workers' compensation.

Meanwhile, today in Wisconsin ...
We think this bit of history is an important backdrop to what's going on in Wisconsin today.

Wisconsin has the distinction of being the first state in the union to have enacted a workers' compensation law that survived legal challenge in May of 1911. In fact, the state of Wisconsin has a long, storied and sometimes bloody history of being on the front lines for worker rights. Workers and labor unions were in the forefront of the fight for the 8-hour day and the 40-hour work week. In 1932, Wisconsin was the first state to enact unemployment compensation.

To any who know this history, it comes as no surprise that, once again, Wisconsin is on the front lines in the battle for labor's future.

It's the budget, stupid - or is it?
The ostensible issue, according to Governor Walker, is that the state of Wisconsin is broke and a large part of the problem lies with overly generous benefit packages of public workers - teachers, prison guards and the like - which are said to be crippling the state. He called on unions to do their part and to make a sacrifice for the greater good.

All that might be well and good. The unions have indicated their willingness to take a financial haircut. But the part of Governor Walker's Budget Repair Bill that is going over somewhat less well is a call for the elimination of collective bargaining -- and therein lies the rub.

With a Republican majority in Wisconsin's House and Senate, the bill was all but a given until the Democratic senate contingent fled the state to prevent a vote. Since that time, there have been massive protests over three weeks and the so-called Fab 14 remain holed up in un-named Illinois' hotels. And there has been no shortage of drama in this story: an embarrassing and revelatory 20-minute prank call to Governor Walker from an impersonator of corporate financier David Koch; and a sheriff's refusal to play the role of "palace guard", among other things.

Part of national union busting agenda?
Critics of Walker's Budget Repair Bill say that the issue is not about budget balancing or overly generous benefits, but an ideological push to eliminate or curtail public unions - in a phrase, union busting. Opponents say that this is a corporate-funded campaign to eliminate public unions in Wisconsin and other states, and to privatize many institutions that are currently staffed by public workers. No less a staunch Republican than former Congressman and now host of MSNBC's "Morning Joe" program, Joe Scarborough, has publicly called Governor Walker's actions, "Un-American."

In Wisconsin, suspicions are high because Koch enterprises funded a large part of Walkers gubernatorial campaign. The fact that the budget bill contains a provision authorizing Walker to conduct no-bid sales of some state properties also heightens suspicion. Many are troubled by his plans for privatization of some public services. In his prior role as Milwaukee County Executive, Walker also used budget emergency as a justification for privatizing security guards, a move that proved less than successful.

Other states have also embarked on this path: Ohio may be making more headway in curtailing unions. In Indiana, Democratic legislators have followed Wisconsin's lead and left the state to postpone a vote. In Rhode Island, nearly 2000 teachers have been dismissed. Other states may be contemplating similar measures, although some may be a bit shy of action given the shifting public sentiment, which favors retention of collective bargaining and has given Walker a black eye - to a point where voters say they would not elect him again if they had a do-over. (see Wisconsin Public Research, Rasmussen, USA Today/Gallup, Public Policy Polling and various other polls. )

It's uncertain what will happen in the next chapters, but we will be watching. It is clear this is another watershed point in labor history, a public policy fork in the road, perhaps the beginning of the end of the movement that was propelled into mainstream America by that terrible fire 100 years ago. While polling indicates that sentiment is currently on the side of the teachers in this dispute, the future of public unions is under serious threat. Is the role of unions obsolete? Has the public dialogue achieved an equilibrium between the rights of workers and those of management?

At Lynch Ryan, we have great respect for unions, which have historically played a critical check-and-balance role in labor-management power dynamics. They have also been in the forefront of the fight for worker safety and other worker protections. We also admire and respect many employers we have been privileged to work for who are perceptive and wise enough to manage their companies so well that unions are not needed. We'd like to say that all employers are this enlightened and do not need union checks and balances to do the right thing, but unfortunately our experience tells us that this is not always the case.

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February 9, 2011

 

Feeling risky? Catch up on your reading - Jaan Sidorov of The Disease Management Care Blog hosts this week's risky roundup: The 124th Cavalcade of Risk

Work Comp history
Yesterday, we posted a feature on window washers as a dangerous profession, which included some vintage photos of workers pre-OSHA. Later, via Complex Care Blog, we were alerted to Peter Rousmaniere's excellent article in Risk & Insurance, Into the Work Killing Ground, which turned the clock back even further. Peter offers a fascinating and chilling glimpse into what the working world was like at the start of the last century, before workers compensation laws had been enacted. He notes that, "The fatality rate at the time, if transposed to today's population, would exceed 300,000 deaths a year. Our rate was twice as high as England's." He talks about one young attorney, Crystal Eastman, who began documenting injuries and fatalities just in the Pittsburgh area alone. Her report became a catalyst for the ensuing law. If, like me, you didn't know about her contribution to workers' comp, you can learn more about Crystal Eastman at Wikipedia.

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February 8, 2011

 

Lunch-atop-a-skyscraper-c1932.jpg

Image from Wikipedia

Master Cleaners Ltd a central London cleaning company, has posted a fascinating photo feature on their blog called The World's Most Fearless Cleaners. We issue a vertigo warning in advance. Also, the caveat that we are not endorsing the safety procedures or lack thereof that are depicted in the photos.

Here are a few more detailed stories associated with the above photos:


We also recommend this dramatic photo gallery from the New York Public Library's digital archive of Empire State Building construction workers. There are few belts, lifelines, or tethers in sight so it is rather surprising that only five workers were killed during construction. We also found a rare video clip of 1940s-era window washers working on the Empire State Building. (With a bonus of some acrobats doing a stomach-churning stunt on the ledge) And here is a vintage 1934 feature on skyscraper window washers from Modern Mechanix.

Two years ago this month, we wrote about miracle survivor Alcides Moreno, a window washer who survived a 47 story plunge. In that post, we cited the ever-fascinating Free Fall Research Page, which documents reports, stories, and personal accounts of people who survived falls from extreme heights.

If tall structures are your thing, you might enjoy this skyscraper site which tracks the world's tallest buildings. This thread in Skyscraper City features a few articles about cleaning skyscraper windows.

Related resources
OSHA Fall Protection
OSHA: Scaffolding
No such thing as a free fall


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January 4, 2011

 

For nearly 15 years, beginning in 1990, Bradley Clark was a baggage handler for United Airlines. He started at age 33, and by the time he was unable to perform the work, he was nearly 50. Ten years in, he began experiencing pain in his thumb joints. In 2004 he banged his hand against a cart and was diagnosed with bilateral carpal tunnel, for which he had surgery. Unfortunately, the surgery did not stop the pain. (NOTE to claims adjusters: This is yet another example of unnecessary surgery, based upon the wrong diagnosis.)

With pain continuing after the surgery, Clark sought treatment from a hand specialist. He treated with Dr. Charles T. Woolley, who performed surgical fusions on both thumbs. Coverage of this surgery was denied, as a succession of five physicians concluded that Clark's problem was osteoarthritis, which is hereditary and unrelated to work. The opinions included an IME performed by two doctors, who concurred with the other doctors that the condition was not work related.

Slam dunk for the employer, right?

Making the Case
In his choice of a hand surgeon, Bradley Clark stumbled upon a stubborn and determined physician, one more than willing to disagree with his colleagues. Dr. Woolley diagnosed bilateral trapeziometacarpal joint arthritis and insisted that it was work related. Among his impressively detailed findings:
- Clark was too young to develop osteoarthritis, as he was only 43 years old when the pain first developed.
- He found no genetic pre-disposition to developing osteoarthritis, as none of the other joints in Clark's hands, such as his fingers, revealed osteoarthritis. There was no osteoarthritis in any other part of his body.
- Osteoarthritis in the thumbs is typically seen in women, in particular post-menopausal women. Clark rather obviously did not fall within this category.
- Clark performed significant lifting for 16 years, which required repetitive pinching of his thumbs. This kind of grabbing/pinching activity places significant loading on the thumbs and ultimately leads to a wear and tear of the thumb joints. Wear and tear over time led to instability of his joints causing the osteoarthritis. His TMC or thumb joints became unstable over time because of the repetitive grabbing/pinching use. Over time with continued use, his cartilage in his thumbs wore off due to the repetitive friction from the pinching/grabbing.
- Contusions/strains, such as the work injury he sustained in November 2004, also contributed to the osteoarthritis, because they cause damage to the cartilage which leads to instability of the ligament. Jamming one's thumb also contributes to the development of osteoarthritis because it damages the ligament causing instability and then osteoarthritis.
- The thumb basal joint (where the thumb meets the wrist) is exposed to very high stresses with grabbing activities and the forces felt at the tip of the thumb are multiplied twelve times in their effect on the thumb base, thus predisposing this joint to wear and tear. Clark's work activities as a ramp serviceman are the exact kind of activities to cause wear and tear to the thumb joint because of the grabbing involved; this wear and tear led directly to the osteoarthritis in his thumbs.

Deep Knowledge
While there were five doctors lined up against him, Woolley was the only hand specialist among them. The duelling docs bolstered their differing cases through articles in medical journals. The Oregon Court of Appeals was faced with a choice: side with the majority or side with the expert.

Ultimately, Dr. Woolley's opinion prevailed. His compelling testimony, combined with his intimate knowledge of hands, won the day. So let's have a little hand for Dr. Woolley, who could have taken the easy way out and deferred to his colleagues, but instead fought the good fight for a hard-working man who could no longer do his job.

(For the record, we duly note that Clark retired from his job long before the onerous baggage fees went into effect, at which time many of us lost a bit of sympathy for these harried and ultimately blameless workers.)

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August 30, 2010

 

If you haven't discovered the gem that is the Boston Globe's "Big Picture" yet, you are missing a wonderful feature. Billed as "news stories in photographs" it is a themed news essay curated by Alan Taylor. From the BP oil disaster to the floods in Pakistan, the photos add a visual narrative to breaking stories of the day.

This past week, as in many media outlets, the focus was on Katrina. With a human toll of more than 1,800 dead and an economic toll exceeding $80 billion, the 5-year anniversary merits our attention.

For many of us, the anniversary is a look back, but for many of those who experienced it first hand, Katrina is a continuing nightmare. News reports point to ongoing health problems, from mental health issues to general health problems, such as skin infections and respiratory illnesses: "A recent study published in a special issue of Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry found elevated concentrations of lead, arsenic and other toxic chemicals were present throughout New Orleans, particularly in the poorer areas of the city. It suggested that widespread cleanup efforts and demolition had stirred up airborne toxins known to cause adverse health effects."

Many residents, particularly children, are still still experiencing severe emotional and psychological disturbances. The National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health has been conducting studies on Gulf coast residents, and recently issued a white paper in coordination with the Children's Health Fund:

"Together, these documents indicate that although considerable progress has been made in rebuilding the local economy and infrastructure, there is still an alarming level of psychological distress and housing instability. Investigators believe that housing and community instability and the uncertainty of recovery undermine family resilience and the emotional health of children. These factors characterize what researchers are calling a failed recovery for the Gulf region's most vulnerable population: economically disadvantaged children whose families remain displaced."
Looking back to look ahead
It's no mystery why FEMA would designate September as National Preparedness Month. Between the man-made disaster of 9-11 and nature's twin-wallop of Katrina and Rita, it's certainly been a month fraught with peril, at least in terms of the last decade. In particular, FEMA is calling on businesses to be ready with disaster plans, and offers resources for that purpose.


A crisis by its very nature is unpredictable and random. But from a risk management point of view, it's important for businesses to examine past events so that lessons learned can become part of planning for future crises with an eye to minimizing losses and disruption.

Perhaps one of the best articles we've seen on this theme is Crisis Management of Human Resources: Lessons From Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This article discusses the three phases of crisis management: planning and preparation; immediate event response; and post crisis, or recovery. It cites specific companies and the way they problem-solved aspects of the Katrina crisis, and points to the importance of putting some plans in place: having and circulating an alternative emergency communication systems plan; keeping contact information and next-of-kin data current; maintaining communications with employees during an emergency; having updated policies and procedures for compensation and benefit continuation; making resources such as EAP services available to employees; and having flexible and alternative work arrangements.

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June 16, 2010

 


Workers comp is 100 years old this year and by way of Roberto Ceniceros' informative blog Comp Time, we learn that there is a Workers' Compensation Centennial Commission (WCCC), which was formed to celebrate the anniversary of the first constitutional workers' compensation law in the United States. The WCCC was organized by a bi-partisan coalition of Wisconsin-based labor and government leaders, which is reaching out to other states to commemorate the anniversary of the landmark legislation. It's pretty appropriate that this initiative is kicking off in Wisconsin because that was the state where the first state workers' compensation law was signed on May 3, 1911.

The WCCC site has collected some really interesting resources, including a photo gallery and various historical documents. And one of the centerpieces of the collection is a terrific 10-minute video that was created by students from Nimitz High in Houston Texas for the 2008 National History Day.

Great job on the film - thanks, Nimitz High students!

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April 27, 2010

 

Salverio Todaro, a 68 year old entrepreneur, ran a safety inspection company called SAF Environmental Corporation. You may never have heard of Todaro, but if you live in the New York City area, Todaro may have succeeded in damaging your brain or shortening your life by a number of years. Certified to inspect buildings for lead and asbestos, Todaro rarely actually tested for the deadly substances. Beginning in 1989, he routinely filed bogus inspection reports, including phony lab results, on buildings scheduled for renovation or demolition across the five boroughs. (William Rashbaum of the New York Times provides the appalling details here.)

Think about the consequences of Todaro's failure to do his job. He gave the green light for projects that put construction workers on hundreds of jobs at immediate risk for exposure to lead and asbestos. These workers ripped apart buildings contaminated with asbestos, raising clouds of toxins for all to breath - construction workers, neighbors, passers by. It will take years for the toxins to do their work, but rest assured, that dreadful work will be done.
NOTE: I hardly need add that construction workers on the job sites certified as safe by Todaro are unlikely to qualify for workers comp benefits: thanks to Todaro, there are no records of hazardous substances on these sites.

In one documented case, Todaro was asked to examine an apartment where a young child had suffered from exposure to lead. Todaro gave the building a clean bill of health. As a result, the family had no reason to move, no reason to suspect that every breath their child took put him at risk for further brain damage.

A Punishment to Fit the Crime
In an earlier time, we might have pondered Todaro's fate after his death. In Dante's Inferno, the Ninth Circle of Hell is reserved for traitors, who find themselves eternally locked into awkward positions, encased in ice. Todaro betrayed his city and his fellow man, and made a few bucks in the process. But his actual fate is pretty mild by Dante's standards: he is facing four to six years in jail. After that, I imagine, he'll head south to a quiet retirement in Florida. No eternity encased in ice for this despicable betrayer of the public trust.

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April 6, 2010

 

Whatever you may be doing as you read this, take a moment to focus on your breath - the simple act of breathing in fresh air and then exhaling. Then think for a moment of the all the people who work in conditions where clean air is nowhere to be found. Think especially of the miners working deep in the earth, extracting minerals which benefit us all.

I often wonder what compels people to choose work in such dire conditions. For many, it's the only work available. For others, it's just what they know. Here is a passage, quoted in a lovely essay by Colin Nicholson, from one of my very favorite writers, Alistair MacLeod of Cape Breton Island, Canada (whose books Island and No Great Mischief are simply wonderful). MacLeod's family emigrated from the Scottish highlands in the late 1700s and found work in the Canadian mines:

Once you start it takes a hold of you, once you drink underground water, you will always come back to drink some more. The water gets into your blood. It is in all of our blood. We have been working in the mines here since 1873.

Here he describes a young boy in his first working day underground:

And there was scarcely thirty-six inches of headroom where we sprawled, my father shovelling over his shoulder like the machine he had almost become while I tried to do what I was told and to be unafraid of the roof coming in or of the rats that brushed my face, or of the water that numbed my legs, my stomach, and my testicles or of the fact that at times I could not breathe because the powder-heavy air was so foul and had been breathed before.

I am haunted this morning by the thought of 25 miners in West Virginia, whose last breaths were taken 1000 feet below the earth's surface. For each, there was a first terrifying day in the mines, perhaps following their grandfathers, fathers or uncles into tunnels deep below the surface. Over time, the terror receded, followed by the grim routine of working in the dark and breathing powder-heavy air that had been breathed before.

In the coming weeks, there will be many questions about mine safety, company policies and procedures, and survival benefits for the families. But today, there is simply the hope that the bodies can be recovered and brought one last time to the earth's surface. In a concluding irony, the final resting place for these men will be far above the chambers where they worked and where they died.

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April 5, 2010

 

Dr. Diane Shafer practices medicine in the Tug Valley area of West Virginia. The Tug River runs along the Kentucky border. It's a hard-scrabble part of the state, famous mostly for the Matewan coal mine strike in the 1920s. (Mother Jones, featured recently in one of our blogs, led the miners in an unsuccessful attempt to establish a union.) With a declining population and a median household income of $27,000, the area is dirt poor.

Which brings us to Dr. Shafer, an orthopedic surgeon. She may practice in a desperately poor part of a relatively poor state, but she is doing pretty well for herself. We read in the Insurance Journal that prosecutors have been very busy tracking her activities. A January raid of her bank holdings yielded more than $500,000 in cash and valuables. About half that haul consisted of stacks of $100 bills found in one of her safety deposit boxes.

Where did the cash come from? Don't bother looking for surgical fees. Dr. Shafer sells drugs. A state-federal probe tracked hundreds of people who entered Shafer's storefront clinic daily, paid between $150 and $450 cash, and left with pain drug prescriptions. Evidence included photos showing a line of people waiting to see Shafer that reached the sidewalk and stretched down the street, with as many as 30 people waiting outside. Dr. Shafer was not just running the most popular ortho practice in Mingo County, population 26,000. It must have qualified as the most popular ortho practice in the world.

FBI Special Agent James Lafferty said in a sworn statement: "The condition of Dr. Shafer's office during the execution of the search warrant indicated that it would be physically impossible for her to utilize her examining tables. She indicated that she examined her patients 'at another location.''' In the back of her pick up truck, perhaps?

Dr. Shafer has parlayed her wealth into an interest in politics. She is running for the state senate with the slogan "You are Safer with Shafer." Well, you certainly feel less pain when she is doing her thing. On her platform, outlined in rather primitive form at her website, she proposes giving free prescriptions to senior citizens. She does not specify which drugs she has in mind, but we can probably guess.

This is not the good Doc's first encounter with law enforcement. Her license was suspended in the 1990s for bribery and falsification of evidence in a workers comp case. (Why am I not surprised?) Eventually, her license was reinstated. The latter court noted: "The evidence is undisputed that the appellee is a hardworking, valuable member of her medically under-served community, and her technical ability to practice medicine is unquestioned."

History Repeating Itself.
Mingo County may be poor, but it has a fascinating history, summarized here. The origin of the county is worthy of a Faulkner novel:

Mingo County is the youngest county in the state, formed by an act of the state legislature in 1895 from parts of Logan County. Its founding was related to a legal protest by a moonshiner who claimed that the Logan County Court that had found him guilty did not have jurisdiction over his case because his still was actually located in Lincoln County. A land survey was taken and discovered that the defendant was correct. The charges were then refilled in Lincoln County court. Although the moonshiner was ultimately found guilty of his crime, the state legislature was made aware of the situation and determined that Logan County was too large for the expeditious administration of justice and decided to create a new county, called Mingo. The county was named in honor of the Mingo Indian tribe that had been the earliest known settlers of the region.

Dr. Shafer appears to be carrying on in the tradition of Mingo's founding moonshiner. She is also likely to end up as he did, with a conviction. The shutting down of her wildly popular practice may well drive the good folks of Mingo back into the hills in pursuit of more traditional methods of mitigating pain: no prescription is required; the medication comes only in liquid form; and there are no warning labels, but the risks of consuming it are beyond calculation.

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March 17, 2010

 

Mother_Jones.jpg
"I'm not a humanitarian. I'm a hell-raiser"

Top of the morning to you this St. Patrick's Day! We thought that the day might be a fitting time to commemorate the life of an Irish immigrant who was hailed as "the the grandmother of all agitators," the "Miners' Angel," "labor's Joan of Arc," and "The Most Dangerous Woman in America."

Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones, was an Irish immigrant who emerged as one of the most famous women in America. Today, her life is largely relegated to the dustbins of history - rather unfair, given her colorful life and the importance that she had to the labor movement. Born in County Cork, she and her family emigrated to Canada and then to the U.S. to escape the potato famine. She worked as a teacher and a seamstress and gave birth to four children. After losing her husband and children to yellow fever in 1867 and becoming dispossessed in 1871 by the great Chicago fire, she became a labor educator, organizer and tireless crusader for basic worker rights, for stopping the work exploitation of children, and for mine workers. She was also one of the founders of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), aka "the Wobblies." There's some dispute as to the date of her birth (she said 1830, others say 1837), but she lived to the age of either 93 or 100, an activist to the end of her days.

Biographer Dale Fetherling says of her:

" [she] was born . . . less than 50 years after the end of the American Revolution. Yet, she died on the eve of the New Deal. She was alive when Andrew Jackson was president, and she sometimes quoted from speeches she heard Lincoln make. As an adult she knew the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. She rode in automobiles, and she saw the railroads link the oceans. She saw and was seen in films and came to know the everyday use of the telephone, the electric light, and the radio. She watched unions grow from secret groups of hunted men to what she feared was a complacent part of the established order.... It may have been a good time to live in America. But it also was a time in which one needed to fight very hard to survive. That she did."

As an activist, she was highly effective - particularly in an era in which women's voices were often muted. She was effective at harnessing the status of women in her organizing efforts:

"Mother Jones was notable for attracting publicity and attention from the government for the cause of workers. One of her best-known activities was leading a march of miners' wives "who routed strikebreakers with brooms and mops in the Pennsylvania coalfields in 1902." Another was leading the "children's crusade," a caravan of striking children from the textile mills of Kensington, Pennsylvania, to President Theodore Roosevelt's home in Long Island, New York, in 1903, to dramatize the case for abolishing child labor."
Biographer Elliott J. Gorn notes:
"Her fame began when, toward the end of the nineteenth century, she transformed herself from Mary Jones into Mother Jones. Her new persona was a complex one, infused with overtones of Christian martyrdom and with the suffering of Mother Mary. Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones. She exaggerated her age, wore old-fashioned black dresses, and alluded often to her impending demise. By 1900, she had stopped referring to herself as Mary altogether and signed all of her letters "Mother." Soon laborers, union officials, even Presidents of the United States addressed her that way, and they became her "boys."
The persona of Mother Jones freed Mary Jones. Most American women in the early twentieth century were expected to lead quiet, homebound lives for their families; few women found their way onto the public stage. Ironically, by making herself into the symbolic mother of the downtrodden, Mary Jones was able to go where she pleased and speak out on any issue that moved her. She defied social conventions and shattered the limits that confined her by embracing the very role that restricted most women."

Canny as she was in creating her own highly effective persona, she eschewed any pretense to gentility: "No matter what the fight, don't be ladylike! God almighty made women and the Rockefeller gang of thieves made the ladies."

We can't really do the woman full justice in this post - here's a list of resources that are well worth exploring to learn more about the inimitable Mother Jones:

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June 18, 2009

 

In searching for some safety videos, we chanced upon these vintage clips about workplace safety for women and supervising women, which we pass along for your amusement and elucidation. We're happy to note that in the ensuing years, there have been significant advances for both women and for safety!

The Trouble With Women (1959)

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September 12, 2007

 

As we approach the fourth anniversary of the Workers Comp Insider (September 17, 2003), it's a good time to step back and ask a fundamental question: Why are we doing this? Four years ago Tom, Julie and I observed that there were a lot of bloggers tackling a lot of issues, but they mostly involved isolated individuals pursuing a particular passion. Businesses in general seemed disinterested and our particular focus, the insurance industry, was totally missing in action from the blogsphere.

As a company specializing in designing and fine tuning loss control and risk management programs for employers and insurers, Lynch Ryan saw an opportunity. With its infinite, instantaneous reach, the web offered a virtual forum for exploring the many ramifications of workers comp. As consultants, we wanted to create a meaningful and objective means of communicating issues related to the key comp constituencies:
- helping employers minimize the cost of risk, while still managing their injured employees
- supporting insurance companies in risk selection and in the education of policy holders
- guiding injured employees back to gainful employment
- facilitating medical provider interaction with injured employees, their employers and insurers (and helping them survive increasingly stingy payment schemes)
- guiding states through the complex task of legislative reform, where they must balance the needs of injured employees, employers, insurers and medical providers, without allowing the cost of insurance to drive business out of state
- alerting workers' comp professionals and risk managers to issues of compelling interest which they might not otherwise encounter

Fertile Ground
Over our four years as bloggers, we have examined managed care, coverage for independent contractors, the practices (good, bad and indifferent) of insurance carriers, the impact of designer drugs on the cost of insurance. We have discussed fraud in Ohio, legislative reform in dozens of states, the use (and abuse) of temporary modified duty, myriad safety issues - cell phone use while driving, heat in the summer, cold in the winter. We have highlighted the aging American workforce and the implications for workers comp in the years ahead. We have explored the profound implications for the comp system of the millions of workers lacking health insurance, along with the nation's dilemma dealing with 12 million undocumented workers. And that's just a hint of the fertile ground we have plowed, up to five times a week, for over 200 weeks. Dull it isn't!

We also have created and refined a website that makes accessing web resources as easy as possible, linking our readers to business, risk management and health-related resources. In addition, you can use our robust search engine to explore nearly 800 blog entries by content area. All modesty aside, we think that the Insider has become the best workers comp reference library on the net.

How are We Doing?
We think it's working pretty well. We have as many as 20,000 hits a month, with several thousands of loyal readers and hundreds of casual visitors seeking inforation on a specific issue. Readership has increased steadily from month to month. We are approaching our goal of becoming the "go to" site for workers comp issues.

And, although Google and others call several times a month, we don't allow advertising, except for a small banner that links to LynchRyan, our parent company.

All of which leads to a very fundamental question for any business: is it worth the effort? Is this free service in any way profitable? That's not an easy question to answer - and in some respects, it's the wrong question. But in the interests of full disclosure and the candor to which we are committed, yes, we have established long term and meaningful relationships with a number of insurance companies and employers who found us through the blog. The considerable effort easily pays for itself.

But even if the blog were a "loss leader" we would probably continue the effort. We are filling a definite need on the web, providing a balanced and objective view of risk management and risk transfer issues, with a special focus on workers comp. Our goal is to provide our readers with a reliable, well written and entertaining news source that reflects our abiding passion and our many years in the field. And whatever you think of the Insider, you'll have to agree on one thing: the price is right.

Your comments are always welcome.

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September 5, 2007

 

work comp stamp
Many of us are familiar with the Insurance Library, a Boston area institution that has been an important insurance resource for consumers and professionals alike for more than a century. But did you know there was such a thing as the online Museum of Insurance? We certainly didn't, but we chanced upon it in one of our recent Google searches. It's one of those strange little nooks that you find on the Internet, a repository of insurance ephemera ranging from calendars and postcards to policies, stock certificates, and receipts. The earliest of these documents dates back to the early 1800s. We were disappointed that there were no workers' compensation documents among the mix. Of course, in days of yore, it would have been "workmans' compensation," a term you still hear bandied about now and then. We did our own search on workers compensation and found a commemorative workmens' compensation stamp that was issued in 1961, one stamp in a folio of four. Here's a picture of President Kennedy and Vice President Johnson walking to the introduction ceremony for the stamp.

Perhaps some large insurers have some workers' comp ephemera that they would like to donate to the cause.

Interesting as we find some of these documents, we're just as happy that this is a virtual museum. Frankly, it sounds like something that would be a side stop in the Griswold family's vacation itinerary. But as long as we're reflecting on the history of the insurance industry, at the Early Office Museum you can compare your work environment with those of some of your professional forbearers.

Insurance ephemera is a pretty thin category on E-Bay. If you are looking for the perfect gift for National Boss Day come this Oct 16, or just for your favorite insurance geek, you may find something interesting under insurance and banking advertising collectibles.

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May 8, 2007

 

U.S. Steel - female workersThe website for National Archives is a national treasure. The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is the Government agency that preserves and maintains important historical materials and makes them available for research or public access. Many records have been digitized and the site has an extensive array of exhibits that range from the educational to the entertaining.

One that we chanced on recently that may be of some interest to readers of this blog is The Way We Worked. This is an extensive exhibit, primarily photographic, that offers a glimpse of American workplaces spanning the mid 19th to the late 20th centuries. The exhibit graphically depicts how the nature of the work that we do has changed and offers this commentary:

" ... In 1870 only a handful of factories employed over 500 workers. By 1900, 1,063 factories employed between 500 and 1,000 people. During the first half of the 20th century, many African American women worked as domestics in private homes, but during World War II, they took advantage of new opportunities at shipyards and factories.

By the end of the 20th century, a dramatic shift took place, sending individuals who had worked in factories, plants, and mills into jobs in offices, stores, and restaurants."


The site has exhibits on what people wore to work and what tools they used. Also, in a section about "conflict at work" there are photos focusing on labor issues. The section that attracted our attention is a compilation of photos on dangerous or unhealthful work. Each of the photos are captioned and offer interesting commentary. The photo of the women that we've used in this post depicts workers at U.S. Steel's Gary, Indiana Works, taken sometime between 1941 and 1945. The caption refers to the workers as "top women" and states that, "Their job is to clean up at regular intervals around the tops of twelve blast furnaces. As a safety precaution, the girls wear oxygen masks while they are doing the clean-up job."

The photos are also available for purchase in book form and can be viewed at the following locations in a traveling exhibit:

  • Morrow, GA., March 10 - May 20, 2007
    --National Archives and Records Administration - Southeast Regional Archives
  • Kansas City, MO. , June 9 - August 19, 2007
    --Kansas City Public Library
  • Ocala, FL., September 8 - December 18, 2007
    --Central Florida Community College
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March 28, 2007

 

miners2.jpg

Every now and then ,we come across a historical site that catches our interest, either because it highlights an industry, a telling event, or some other matter related to work, insurance, or the matters that we tend to discuss here at Workers Comp Insider. Mining's Legacy - a Scar on Kansas is just such a site. Hosted by the Lawrence Journal-World, the site uses text, video, photography and historical documents to tell the story of the mining industry in Cherokee and Crawford counties. The series chronicles the long-term impact that the industry has had on the landscape and the people of the area.

While the entire site is of interest, both for the historical and the contemporary significance, we found the worker stories to be quite compelling. "It was a bad way to make a living," says 81 year-old Walter Weinstein, who went to work in the mines at the age of 12. He narrates a slide show that gives a good idea of the working conditions in the mines. It's an interesting story, and one that will probably offer some perspective on any job annoyances you may have today.

A posting on discussion site Metafilter offers more colorful historical context around the industry, the era, and the geographic region.

The Department of Labor also has a fascinating historical mining exhibit on the Mine Safety and Administration Administration pages, encompassing topics such as the so-called breaker boys, children as young as 8 years old who worked the mines, "Eight Days in a Burning Mine", the harrowing story of a survivor of the Cherry mine disaster, and pages focusing on the history of Irish, Asian, and Afro-American mine workers.

Not the stuff of yesteryear
Unfortunately, unsafe conditions are not just a matter of historical record. While safety has improved, mining continues to be among the world's most dangerous professions, both here in the U.S., and in various points throughout the globe. Last year, U.S. coal mine deaths spiked to a 10-year high. Two weeks ago, we had our first U.S. miner death in 2007, and this week, at least 107 miners lost their lives in underground Siberian tunnels and in China, where at least 5,000 die in mining accidents each year, 15 workers perished in a flood and another 26 died in an unrelated explosion.

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December 18, 2006

 

It was George Santayana, the Spanish born American philosopher, poet and humorist, who wrote, “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

With that in mind, I’d like to suggest how the history of California’s pioneers and prospectors is an allegory of its workers’ compensation ups and downs over the last 20 years.

Donner Party StormFrom 1840 to 1860 more than half a million people made the dangerous, often perilous, journey from eastern America to California to hunt for prosperity. It was one of the greatest migrations in human history, and, for the most part, it was about gold and humankind’s ancient fascination with it.

Gold means wealth. In the late 1840s, California’s gold was found lying on the ground, just sitting there waiting for someone to pick it up; today, it’s found in the state’s workers’ compensation insurance companies. Right now, those companies are seeing a lot of gold just waiting to be picked up and pocketed. They’re the ones who have survived the perilous economic journey of the last 20 years, or they’re the start-ups taking advantage of the newest gold rush. But from 1995 to 2003, 28 companies died on the quest.. As in the 19th century, only the strong survived.

The First Trek West
During the early and mid-1840s, thousands of people had already made the 2,650 mile journey from east to west, specifically, from Springfield, Illinois to Oregon and from there to California. In early April of 1846, the Donner family was one such group. The Donners weren’t heading to California because of the gold, just for the potential of a better life.

In Independence, Missouri, the Donners joined a number of other migrating families, eventually growing their number of men, women and children to 87. The wagon-train party elected George Donner and Frank Reed its leaders and continued west. It was just outside Fort Bridger that the group made its big mistake: relying on faulty advice, it made a left turn, instead of a right turn, and that made all the difference. That wrong turn took them 125 miles, or 21 days, out of their way. After traveling 2,500 miles in 150 days, the party missed getting over the high Sierras and into California by one day, reaching the steep base of the mountains on 31 October just as an early blizzard arrived. Ultimately, 41 of the 87 perished, the survivors resorting to cannibalism. The Donner party’s calamity showed just how perilous the journey to California could be. Those rescued finally made it to Sacramento in February of 1847, 11 months before the first discovery of gold was to happen very nearby.

Nuggets on the Ground
Gold was discovered in California on the cold, raw morning of 24 January 1848 when James Marshall, building a saw mill for John Sutter, spied a few small nuggets on the banks of the American River at Coloma near what is now Sacramento. Shortly after that, General John Bidwell and Major Pearson Reading discovered gold in the Feather and Trinity rivers, respectively, and the Gold Rush was on. Ultimately, more than half a million people made the difficult journey to California to seek fortune, most of them retracing the Donner party’s footsteps, up until the fateful left turn, that is. At its height, between 1848 and when it came to a crashing end in 1860, prospectors were turning out an astonishing $81 million a year.

After it was over, the prospectors took themselves, their winnings and their women to the next mother-load in Alaska. And the California economy declined for a while.

Getting to the New Boomtown
Like the period from 1840 to 1860, California’s workers’ compensation market has seen huge up and down swings in the last 20 years. 1993 was the year that the legislature and the Commissioner decided to begin tinkering with the state’s 80 year old Minimum Rate system. In that year, California’s direct written premium had peaked to $9 billion, but a series of rate decreases caused premium to drop to $5.7 billion by 1995. And that’s when the state made its own fateful left turn – the minimum rate system gave way to open rating, but without any restraint on medical or legal excesses or abuse. Piranha-like competition drove the system crazy. By 1997, direct written premium was again rising and heading north in a hurry. In fact, during the following seven years, premium rose to nearly $24 billion, and, were it not for a rate decrease of 2.9% ordered in the waning days of the Davis administration, it would have topped $25 billion. Rates had become the highest in the nation averaging more than $6 per hundred dollars of payroll, while benefits to injured workers were among the lowest. By 2005, absent any serious reform, total premium was projected to hit $29 billion, Moreover, the state had suffered through 28 insurer insolvencies making the state fund California’s largest insurer. California’s total premium was higher than many western European nations.

Things had gone from great to terrible. In the late 1980s the profitability of California’s workers’ compensation insurers was almost three times the national average; by the late 90s profitability was non-existent; it had become the lowest in the nation.

Enter Arnold Schwarzenegger. What a difference getting serious about the law can make. Three highly-targeted law changes produced a few gored oxen littering the side of the road, a gargantuan decline in losses and a drop in premium of more than $6 billion. California’s Division of Workers’ Compensation is producing reports to explain how the law changes have worked so well (and, in some cases, how they have not), and I commend all of it for your reading enjoyment.

But here’s what I find interesting - total premium remains in excess of $18 billion, still double the level of 1997.

And that is why there’s a Gold Rush of sorts happening again in California right now. After an eight year, long dark night, California’s workers’ compensation system has become the economic equivalent of Boomtown. Because of those still high rates, insurers (with new entries flying over the Donner Pass by the planeload) are enjoying a combined ratio of less than 80% (64% in 2004, alone; it makes one have a greater appreciation for just how obscene abuses in the system really were). The biggest problem their senior managements have is figuring out if they can get trucks large enough to carry all the money to the bank.

Like the original Gold Rush, these good times will last for a few more years, maybe one or two, three, if everyone’s lucky. After that, we’ll see if carriers, being unable to withstand their newfound and over-the-top profitability, drive the market from feast to famine and, like the Donner Party survivors, once again take to eating their young.

References
- History of UR in CA (PDF)
- History of Official Medical Fee Schedule – 1999 to present
- Background leading to California reforms (PDF)
- Ontogeny
- Lynch Ryan article on California reforms

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September 1, 2006

 

In all the long weekend holiday plans and back-to-school activities, the true meaning and the origin of Labor Day can be lost in the shuffle. The holiday celebrated on the first Monday in September "... is a creation of the labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country." You can read more about the struggles and history that led to the first Labor Day at the Department of Labor site.

What's the pulse of the American worker today as we head into Labor Day? The New York Times reports that three polls find workers sensing deep pessimism. Most survey respondents indicated that wages are not keeping up with inflation and that conditions are worse than they were a generation ago.

"The nonpartisan Pew center, said, “The public thinks that workers were better off a generation ago than they are now on every key dimension of worker life — be it wages, benefits, retirement plans, on-the-job stress, the loyalty they are shown by employers or the need to regularly upgrade work skills.”
In a poll of 803 registered voters commissioned by the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Peter D. Hart Research found that 55 percent said their incomes were not keeping up with inflation, 33 percent said their incomes were keeping even and 9 percent said their incomes were outpacing inflation."

With jobs being offshored, outsourced, and downsized, and with technology changing the very nature of how and where we work, it is an unsettling time for many.

Between now and Monday, there may not be a lot employers can do to tackle that deep-seated pessimism, but we think there are some simple things that employers can do to commemorate the holiday, even with the day fast upon us: recommit to providing a safe workplace. Take the time to thank your employees and let them know you value them. We think Labor Day might be a good time of year to issue bonuses, raises, and recognition programs.

A look back - tributes to the American worker
To commemorate Labor Day in the true spirit in which it was meant, we've gathered some links to a variety of sites that pay tribute to the American worker.

Labor Arts - a virtual museum that gathers, identifies, and displays historic images of working people and their organizations. The site states that its mission is "to present powerful images that help us understand the past and present lives of working people."

The Quiet Sickness is a dramatic photo essay by Earl Dotter chronicling hazardous work in America.

Lost Labor - Images of Vanished American Workers 1900-1980 - a selection of 155 photographs excerpted from a collection of more than 1100 company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures documenting America's business and corporate industrial history.

Austin at Work is a fascinating site that uses historic images to show the changing nature of work over the ages.

Public History Resource center - "From the family in a tenement toiling over piecework to the farmer caring for his crops to the white collar crowds jamming the subway, the images, both textual and visual, and the experiences of work, both paid and unpaid, pervade the human experience and thus our history as well." This page features links to other sites that tell the story of the American worker.

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March 8, 2006

 

The U.S. Labor Relations Board issued a finding in favor of the IWW ("Wobblies), in their ongoing effort to organize Starbuck baristas (employees). No, this does not mean that Starbucks has been unionized, or even that an election will take place any time soon. In agreeing to the finding, Starbucks does not admit any fault. However, they have agreed to take a limited number of corrective actions, including:

· The reinstatement of two IWW members, Sarah Bender and Anthony Polanco, who had been discharged for their union activity. Bender's back pay totals a little over $1,600, with about $50 in interest. Polanco receives $58.87 in back pay, plus $1.99 in interest.

· Starbucks is rescinding its policy that prohibited the sharing of written union information and joining the union on company property. (As we pointed out in our previous blog, Starbuck's lounge chairs are an excellent place to sit and discuss union strategy.)

· Starbucks has agreed to rescind its national "no-pin" policy. Workers had been banned from wearing IWW pins and had been sent home from work without pay for refusing to take them off. (The agreement does not stipulate whether body piercings containing union logos are acceptable. I await a clarification.)

· Starbucks has agreed to end threats, bribes, and surveillance of union members. (The company apparently did try to promote some organizers, in exchange for their dropping all union activity.)

The full text of the agreement is available here. This document provides a valuable summary of the kinds of union activities that are still protected by law. It's worth a look.

I'm not sure where this victory stands in the historic struggle for worker rights, but congratulations to the IWW are in order. I would point out that the interest that Polanco received on his back pay ($1.99) will not buy him a latte at Starbucks. If he wants to celebrate with a cup of coffee, he'll have to go somewhere else.

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November 7, 2005

 

If you're a history buff, then this is a fitting month to root around in the Web's labor archives since so many seminal events occurred in November. Plus, it just so happens that 2005 marks the 100 year anniversary of the Industrial Workers of the World, more commonly known as "the Wobblies." My colleague Jon recently wrote a post about the curious juxtaposition of Starbucks vs. IWW, a seemingly anachronistic occurrence. In a similar vein, a recent article in The Toronto Star notes that The Wobblies are stirring and wonders if we need `one big union' in the global village:

"At the turn of the last century, the very presence of radical giants like two-fisted Big Bill Haywood, social reformer Eugene Debs and silver-haired firebrand "Mother" Jones in one room was enough to make captains of industry gnaw their cigar ends with angst.

But to the latte-swilling, Wal-Mart-shopping, logo-sporting workers of today, the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World - a.k.a. the Wobblies - 100 years ago tomorrow, sounds, well, so awesomely over.

In an age of globalization, when the vast majority of the world's underpaid, insecure and unemployed people live in conditions that wouldn't have surprised Charles Dickens, the idea of an expansive cross-border labour movement to unite the workers of the world seems to have gone the way of the doily and the moustache cup.

The Wobblies were free-spirited, often transient, and dedicated to a large social vision," says Craig Heron, professor of history at York University. "They carried around the union songbook in their back pockets.

Those days of zealous singsongs, all-night debates and pamphlets on the meaning of life as a labourer are light years away from today's shrinking union population, beleaguered by globalization and bruised by layoffs, cutbacks and wage freezes. And for many of the world's non-union workers, collective action is as distant, or irrelevant, as water on Mars."

Talk of singsongs and the free-spiritedness of members might give a false impression of the times in which the Wobblies first made their debut. These events of by-gone Novembers offer a flavor of the era that gave rise to the labor movement:

November 5, 1916 - The Everett Massacre
The I.W.W. was particularly active in the Pacific Northwest in the early years of the last century. They planned a street-speaking event in Everett to show solidarity with striking shingle workers. About 300 members boarded two steamers, but as the boats approached the dock, shots rang out. "On the dock, deputies Jefferson Beard and Charles Curtis lay dying, and 20 others, including the sheriff, were wounded. On the Verona's deck, Wobblies Hugo Gerlot, Abraham Rabinowitz, Gus Johnson and John Looney were dead and Felix Baran was dying. While the official I.W.W. toll was listed as 5 dead and 27 wounded, as many as 12 Wobblies probably lost their lives, their bodies surreptitiously recovered from the bay at a later date." You can read more and view primary sources of the event at the Everett Public Library's Digital Collection.

November 11, 1919 - Centralia Masacre
"On November 11, 1919, a gunbattle erupts during an Armistice Day parade of American Legionnaires in Centralia, leaving four dead and resulting in the lynching of one member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). World War I veterans and other Centralia citizens march on the local headquarters of the IWW, whose members anticipate an attack. Shots are fired, killing veterans Arthur McElfresh, Ben Casagranda, and Warren Grimm and wounding veterans John Watt, Bernard Eubanks, and Eugene Pfister. That night a mob removes imprisoned IWW member Wesley Everest, who was also a veteran, from the town jail and lynches him from the bridge over the Chehalis River." The University of Washington Libraries offers a collection of primary sources.

November 19, 1915 - Joe Hill shot by firing squad
A labor activist and I.W.W. member, Joe Hill was a famous songwriter whose protest songs were highly popular with workers and a staple on picket lines. While he was in Salt Lake City to organize a strike, a former policeman was shot and killed. Joe was charged with the murder and shot by a firing squad. Protesting his innocence, he had this to say before his death:

"The main and only fact worth considering, however, is this: I never killed Morrison and do not know a thing about it. He was, as the records plainly show, killed by some enemy for the sake of revenge, and I have not been in the city long enough to make an enemy. Shortly before my arrest I came down from Park City; where I was working in the mines. Owing to the prominence of Mr. Morrison, there had to be a "goat" and the undersigned being, as they thought, a friendless tramp, a Swede, and worst of all, an I.W.W, had no right to live anyway, and was therefore duly selected to be "the goat". I have always worked hard for a living and paid for everything I got, and in my spare time I spend by painting pictures, writing songs and composing music. Now, if the people of the state of Utah want to shoot me without giving me half a chance to state my side of the case, bring on your firing squads - I am ready for you. I have lived like an artist and I shall die like an artist."

For more on Joe Hill, see the PBS biography, which includes links to song clips and lyrics.

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June 6, 2005

 

When I read that the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) was trying to organize workers at a Manhattan Starbucks, I thought for a moment that I was stuck in a time machine. The IWW still exists? Indeed, the "wobblies" are still with us. They have a website, resplendent in red and full of interesting information. This year marks the union's 100th anniversary, which, I think it is safe to say, is a little past its peak in terms of interest and participation. They still have articles from two of their most famous supporters, writers Jack London and Helen Keller. A quick review of the archives shows that the truly famous drop off sometime around 1920, but the mission over the next 80 years does not change: the IWW will be satisfied with nothing less than an end to capitalism.

The IWW press release raises some classic issues of poor working conditions, some of which will ring true with those who study the ergonomics of fast food. Starbuck workers serve an enormous volume of beverages, many of them extremely hot. The union claims that in order to save money, management refuses to schedule enough workers to do the required work safely. Instead, workers are forced to perform their duties at unsafe speeds with an undue level of physical exertion.

"A Starbucks coffee shop is an ergonomic minefield. The stores are supposed to mimic an Italian cafe without considering the uncomfortable bending and reaching we have to do, " explained Barista Anthony Polanco. "This is not your mom and pop coffee shop. We are talking McDonalds busy every day. Starbucks talks about "Creating Warmth" but the only warmth I feel is the heat pad at the end of the day."

Coffee, Coffee Everywhere
Starbucks is a $15 billion company with over 7,500 locations around the world. According to the union, in New York City Starbucks workers start at $7.75 an hour and eventually receive paltry raises. The union accuses Starbucks of developing a scheme whereby all Baristas work on a part-time basis and are not guaranteed a set number of hours per week, thus making it exceedingly difficult for workers to budget for necessities like rent, utilities, and food.

The union doesn't address the issue of benefits directly, but it appears that half time (20 hours per week) workers qualify for a fairly robust benefits package, including health, dental and retirement. These benefits certainly have the potential to separate Starbucks employees from those in other fast food industries. However, there may be an issue with scheduling -- a few disgruntled employees claimed that managers deliberately scheduled them for just shy of the required 20 hour average, so they were unable to participate in the benefits plan.

Walmart and Starbucks
There may well be some important similarities in all companies seeking to carve out humongous market shares across the globe. Rapid growth is fueled by aggressive pricing (well, I would not say that Starbucks sells a discounted product!), anticipation of consumer demand and, I'm sorry to say, ferociously contained labor costs. One Starbuck employee wonders why it has become fashionable to boycott Walmart for its labor practices, all the while stopping by the local Starbucks for the stimulant of choice. Interesting question, one which cuts into the very heart of the culture wars. Perhaps the privileged classes can survive without Walmart, but not without their Java.

Still, I like to imagine a couple of wobblies huddled for several hours in overstuffed armchairs at their neighborhood Starbucks, nursing a frappachino latte whatever and plotting the end of capitalism. That is still and ever will be the American way.

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April 2, 2005

 

Some point to the medieval guilds as the origin of workers comp; others see the emergence of workers comp as a response to the industrial revolution when dangerous factory jobs grew more prevalent. But the truth is, hard working laborers have been battling dangerous and unpleasant work conditions from time immemorial. The Worst Jobs in History is a journey through 2,000 years of British history and the worst jobs of each era. It is an alternately amusing and horrifying look back at the types of jobs our forebears held, and a description of the work conditions they faced. So if you ever wondered what it would be like to be a Medieval fuller or leech collector, a Tudor woad dyer or groom of the stool, a Stuart nit-picker or plague burier, or a Victorian rat catcher - now's your chance to find out. You can even take a skills assessment quiz to see which jobs might be best suit you. Jobs for women were relatively scarce - so if I had a career, it is likely I might have been a wise woman or a fish wife lovely!

The site is an offshoot of a popular series that ran on British TV, and it makes for an amusing look back. But the harsh reality behind the history is indeed grim. Unfortunately, you dont have to look to Anglo-Saxon or medieval days to find such terrible work conditions -- many horrifyingly dangerous conditions still exist today right in our own backyards.

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March 17, 2005

 

I thought it might be an interesting commemoration of my Irish heritage to do a post about work conditions that my forebears faced as they immigrated to U.S. shores after the potato famine. Many were involved in the hard labor of building out the impressive canals, dams, and public works projects of the era. But as can easily happen in web wanderings, my searches took me a bit further afield, yet turning up some documents of note, such as an article in the Irish Examiner entitled "Theyre filthy, violent spongers who should be sent home - the Irish!", which paints a colorful picture of the bigotry that immigrants faced. Other interesting documents turned up too - one about the No Irish Need Apply (or "NINA") phenomena, and another disputing the claims of NINA as being largely a myth of victimization.

But the real find of my evening, and one that has kept me riveted, is the story of the Molly Maguires, a clandestine society of Irish miners who struggled against the brutal work conditions in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The story revolves around work conditions and work safety in the late 1800s, the early labor union movements, immigrant pitted against immigrant, murder, execution, and more. Depending on who tells the story, it is a tale of criminals or heroes.

For a balanced account and a fascinating read, I recommend an excellent series on the The Myth of the Molly Maguires by Seamus McGraw in the Court TV Crime Library. The series opens with a profile of Alex Campbell in his jail cell listening to the gallows being built for his execution. He was one of four sentenced to death:

"The four had been convicted of Molly Maguirism and murder, their convictions based almost exclusively on the testimony of a single Pinkerton detective, a man who decades later would be widely discredited, and secured by a prosecutor specially appointed for the task, who also happened to be the president of one of the largest railroad and coal companies in the nation at that time."

One of the precipitating events leading to the violence was the 1868 Avondale Mining Disaster, in which 179 immigrants perished when a cave-in and a fire occurred in the mine.

For an alternative viewpoint of the Molly Maguires, read an 1894 rather lurid account of events. This is part of a larger historic site sponsored by Ohio State University with great articles and resources on Coal Mining in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

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February 27, 2005

 

If you were one of 20,000 women employed in a non-domestic job in Boston in the 1880s, you probably worked a 10-hour day, six days a week and earned $6.03 for your weekly labors. You didn't have very much time off. If you were among the lucky one in five working women who had any vacation time at all, you probably didn't get paid. If you had a holiday, you were likely docked in pay. If you worked for one of the larger employers, you might even be docked in pay for being as little as a single minute late to work - in some instances, fines might be levied. And if you needed to be out sick, at least some jobs required that you find a substitute worker.

This profile was garnered from a 130+ page report entitled The Working Girls of Boston that was published in 1989. It's available online in its entirety from the Harvard University Library. The report was compiled from the 1880 census and from interviews with 1,032 working women.

The report is fascinating. The introduction states that " ... one of the chief reasons for undertaking the investigation, was to determine whether the ranks of prostitution are recruited from the manufactory" so part of the study included canvassing "all the houses of ill repute." In its summary, the report concludes that " ...the girls ... as a class, are honest, industrious and virtuous, and are making an heroic struggle against many obstacles, and in the face of many temptations, to maintain reputable lives."

Health & safety conditions: the workroom and its surroundings
It's difficult to get an objective picture of the health and safety conditions in terms of numbers since objective criteria were not used. Women reported on their own health and working conditions. In describing health, terms were often imprecise, such as "delicate," "robust," or "middling." Measurement standards commonly used today were similarly imprecise. One section of the report discusses lost time, stating that 758 girls lost an average of 12.32 weeks of work in the preceding year, but reasons varied, including " ... dull times, lack of work, sickness of self, children or relatives, or on account of machines being out of order and awaiting repairs."

While most workers described their working conditions as satisfactory to good, a very different picture emerges as you continue reading. Many complained of tiredness from climbing "four, five, six, or even seven flights" to reach higher floors in buildings with poor egress and lack of fire escapes, a foreshadowing of the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory Fire.

Other complaints pointed to the stamina needed for long hours spent standing or operating manually powered equipment. The report focuses less on safety and injuries and more on the overall effects of work on general health, referring frequently to tiredness, nerves, exhaustion, or women being run down and needing rest after being on the job for a period of time. Medical conditions like blood poisoning, consumption, and lung problems were also reported.

Common injuries
There were complaints about poor ventilation and crowded conditions, referencing exposure to dyes that cause "acid sores" on the fingers and dust from sorting feathers, straw, or cotton. Exposure to lead dust in foundries was common and thought to be unhealthy, resulting in "girls and men having little or no color in their faces," and even some reports of girls having died from the effects. In fish packing plants, girls stood in cold water, and wore the skin off their bare hands from handling fish packed in pepper and saltpeter.

Manufacturing buttons resulted in frequent accidents from catching fingers in machines. They must have been frequent because someone (probably not a doctor) was on hand to treat the resulting injuries ... a man is provided to dress injuries three times at no charge, after that the injured person must pay all expenses.

In addition to dangerous work, the overall conditions sound bleak. A lack of adequate toilet facilities was described, and facilities sometimes were located in the center of the work space, emitting noxious odors. Women were said to suffer "evil effects" of "waiting for the use of a closet."

The report is an interesting read in offering an historical view of women in the work force. The patronizing benevolence runs thick, and it is telling that the concern for their morals seems to have equal or greater weight than any concern for their physical well-being. It also paints a picture of conditions for the worker in the decades leading to the 1911 passage of the Workers Compensation Act.

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February 10, 2005

 

In the rush of events, we may succomb to the notion that we are constantly seeing things for the first time. In two previous blogs, we mentioned employers who locked exits to prevent theft after hours, leaving cleaning and maintenance crews vulnerable to disaster. Well, the most famous incident of locked exits occurred on March 25, 1911: the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire in New York City that killed 146 workers, mostly women. The fire led directly to an unlikely alliance between the reform movement and Tammany Hall and became a catalyst for a paradigm shift in safety standards.

We heartily recommend David Von Drehle's riveting account of the disaster, Triangle: The Fire that Changed America. The paperback version was released recently and is available at your local bookseller or at Amazon.com. The book provides a compelling social history of the time. Von Drehle points out how the garment industry had changed from a home-based, free-lance business to huge factory floors in high rise buildings, with row after row of sewing machines. (The ladders of fire trucks were not tall enough to reach the workers nine stories up.) The classic turn-of-the-century "sweat shop" was not just hot -- it was the pace of work that caused the sweat. Because the owners feared theft of the popular shirt waists, they locked the doors. Or did they? That became the heart of the criminal trial that followed the disaster.

The story of the criminal trial may be the most intriguing part of the history. Begin with a trial judge who in a prior life had been a Tammany housing commissioner, fired after 20 people died in a tenement fire. His sympathies were clearly with the owners of the company. Then add a brilliant lawyer for the defense, Max Steuer, whose dazzling cross-examinations raised doubts that the doors had been locked (even though it became clear in retrospect that they had). Steuer achieved a legal triple play: his clients were acquitted of criminal negligence charges, they collected the maximum from their insurance companies and they successfully fought off all civil suits. He was the original "dream team" of one.

We are left with shadows of the many victims: mostly immigrants from eastern Europe and Italy. Not satisfied with their anonymous deaths, Von Drehle names as many of them as he can and provides a brief profile of their impoverished lives. At first, over 90 years after the event, I thought this was an exercise in futility. On second thought, I applaud Von Drehle for not allowing these victims of workplace neglect to disappear without a trace.

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August 11, 2004

 

I stumbled on an interesting essay at the Florida Department of Financial Services' site...it's an overview of the historical evolution of workers compensation from ancient times to the present, one of the best treatments I've seen on the topic. In addition to exploring the European roots, it presents an overview of the system's development throughout the United States, with particular emphasis on legal developments in Florida.

Some reports state that the move to offer protection for injured workers really had its genesis in the German guilds, a system that might be seen as a forerunner of the modern day labor movement. Things really gathered steam in the mid 1800s, both in Germany and England. Here's an excerpt from the Florida essay about a pivotal point of development in Great Britain:

"Barristers, solicitors and others with legal knowledge and training came forward in increasingly large numbers from 1850 forward and represented the injured workers on a contingency or percentage of what they could collect basis. Although the burden of proof was on the worker as well as other legal expenses, the courts became backlogged and the general public suffered from this unfair and inefficient system as crowded dockets and few judges delayed other civil actions. In the midst of this chaos and confusion, it was noticed that the worker was beginning to prevail in these actions and with the growing legal profession's assistance were tying up attaching machinery, buildings and property of the employers through liens and attachments.

In 1897, England repealed the employer's liability act of 1880 and replaced it with a "workmen's" compensation act. Meanwhile, the storm that swept through Europe during this period of industrialization reached the shores of the United States fueled by the aftermath of the Civil War from 1861-1865."

Here in the United States, workers comp wasn't enacted in this country until 1911. Wisconsin was the first state to adopt a law, and by 1948, every state had some form of "workman's comp." At essence, this social insurance is a pact between employers and employees. Employers are mandated to cover medical care and provide wage replacement for injured workers; in exchange for this protection, the workers compensation becomes the exclusive remedy for workers. Although the courts have upheld this doctrine for nearly a century, in some instances, such as willful intent or bad faith, court challenges have succeeded in piecing the exclusivity.

Related
For history buffs, here's another historical overview entitled Workers Compensation, Federalism, and the Heavy Hand of History (pdf). It's a long and academic treatment that explores why workers comp remains the purview of state rather than the federal government by looking at the system's historical roots. And for our northern neighbors, I present the Evolution of the Workers' Compensation System in Canada.

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June 8, 2004

 

For more than 20 years, visual artist Raymon Elozua has been assembling a vast collection of company histories, pamphlets, and technical brochures that document America's industrial history. This site features 155 photos from that collection - images of factories, machinery, and laborers hard at work. Many of the jobs depicted have faded into history.

The artist grew up in the South Side of Chicago in the shadow of the giant steel mills and factories. His dad worked at U.S. Steel and his first job was at U.S. Steel, triggering a life long interest in everything about these industrial behemoths, from the architecture to the people who worked the jobs within. His interest in documenting this bygone era of American working life was sparked by the demise of the South Works industries.

"I began looking for pictures of men and woman at work, individuals who were living the American dream of creating a future for themselves, their family and their country, no matter the effort or hardship."

This fascinating site is the result of Elozua's 20-year quest. It's a wonderful piece of history and a tribute to the labor of our parents' and grandparents' generations. It made me think of my own Dad who spent many years as a busdriver after a few grueling years working in a mill while we were kids. He'd be happy if he were around to see how much easier his kids have life today. Thanks, Dad!

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April 27, 2004

 

April 28 is Workers Memorial Day - "Remember the Dead and Fight for the Living"

The first Workers Memorial Day was observed in 1989. April 28 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the day of a similar remembrance in Canada. Every year, people in hundreds of communities and at worksites recognize workers who have been killed or injured on the job. Trade unionists around the world now mark April 28 as an International Day of Mourning.

Resources
AFL-CIO - "Each year more than 60,000 workers die from job injuries and illnesses and another 6 million are injured. The unions of the AFL-CIO remember these workers on April 28, Workers Memorial Day."

Hazards Magazine - "Worldwide millions die each year as a result of workplace hazards. Most don't die of mystery ailments, or in tragic "accidents". They die because an employer decided their safety just wasn't that important a priority. The global trade union movement wants employers to be accountable for workers' health and safety. Get active on International Workers' Memorial Day, 28 April 2004."

UK's Amicus - "Worldwide 2 million are killed by work each year. Jukka Takala Director of Safe Work at the United Nations International Labour Organisation, said: If terrorism took such a toll, just imagine what would be said and done."

I'll be on the road and won't be able to blog the news headlines of the day. Be sure to visit Confined Space and rawblog Xport - two weblogs that do an excellent job of championing worker safety and shining a spotlight on important health and safety issues.

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February 23, 2004

 

You must visit the extraordinary site of photojournalist Earl Dotter. He describes his work better than I ever could:

For 30 years, the camera has enabled me to do meaningful work. Starting in the Appalachian coal fields, and continuing through the years over a broad spectrum of industries and regions of the country, I have observed and documented the working lives of Americans. Standing behind the lens, I have celebrated the accomplishments, the pride and the skill of workers and community activists ... When I walk through a mine, mill, or on board a fishing vessel, I find myself drawn to those individuals who emanate a sense of personal worth and belonging to the human family. When I experience tragedy in the workplace - death, disability, and exploitation - I use the camera to explore not only the person or event, but my own reaction to it. If I am successful, then the viewer will be better able to stand before the photograph and feel the intensity of the moment as I myself do.

I came upon the site because I used to live in Portland, Maine, and someone there was telling me about an exhibit they had seen last year, The Price of Fish - Our Nation's Most Perilous Job Takes Life and Limb in New England. Interestingly, the exhibit was sponsored by Maine Employers' Mutual Insurance Company (MEMIC) as part of their Safety Academy's outreach, and if you take the time to view the photos you will see how appropriate the exhibit was for this purpose.

His book The Quiet Sickness first chronicled South Carolina textile workers with brown lung disease (or byssinosis) as a consequence of exposure to cotton dust while on the job at the local mill. Photos from several other chapters are available also, and they are very powerful and poignant images, often quite raw - I found the healthcare worker photos particularly troubling, perhaps because I have family full of nurses. Also, the agriculture and food production photos are disturbing - I hadn't thought of quite how many risks are taken to keep my refrigerator full. And see if this is what comes to mind when you think of ergonomics or repetitive stress injuties.

It's easy for those of us who work in the industry to be caught up in the claims and the dollars every day and forget what is at the heart of this business. Earl Dotter brings that home.

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