July 13, 2020 by Darya Minovi

The Peril of Ethylene Oxide: Replacing One Public Health Crisis with Another

Nine months ago, residents of the Chicago suburb of Willowbrook, Illinois, scored a major victory in their fight to prevent emissions of a dangerous gas, ethylene oxide, into the air they breathe. In fact, their victory appeared to have ripple effects in other communities. But like so many other aspects of life in the midst of a pandemic, things changed in a hurry.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) classified ethylene oxide, or EtO, as a human carcinogen in December 2016. According to the agency, exposure via inhalation increases the likelihood of developing certain cancers and other respiratory and neurological ailments. EPA has not established a reference dose, or maximum acceptable dose, for EtO, but the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s (ATSDR) Cancer Risk Evaluation Guide (CREG) estimates concentrations of a carcinogen at which there is an elevated risk of one additional cancer case in one million people exposed over a lifetime. ATSDR’s CREG for ethylene oxide is 0.00021 µg/m3.

Despite being classified as harmful, EtO is used to sterilize nearly half of all medical devices that require sterilization in the United States. EPA’s 2016 Toxics Release Inventory identified more …

July 2, 2020 by Michael C. Duff

Workers' compensation was created as a means to an end and not an end in itself. It addressed the outrageous frequency of workplace injury and death caused by railroads in the late 19th/early 20th century. The unholy trinity of employers' affirmative tort defenses – assumption of the risk, contributory negligence, and the fellow servant rule – meant that workers or their survivors were not being compensated adequately or, in many cases, not at all.

For this reason, expert American investigators were dispatched to Europe between 1909 and 1911 to study the existing workers' compensation systems there. Those experts' work set American workers' compensation baselines. The oddity is that while Europeans moved on to universal benefit systems, we continue to use their 19th century work-injury system. (I write about these developments here). Additionally, the United States briefly flirted …

June 17, 2020 by Thomas McGarity

Governments and industries are "reopening" the economy while COVID-19 continues to rage across the United States. At the same time, the lack of effective, enforceable workplace health and safety standards puts workers and the general public at heightened risk of contracting the deadly virus. In a new report from the Center for Progressive Reform, Sidney Shapiro, Michael Duff, and I examine the threats, highlight industries at greatest risk, and offer recommendations to federal and state governments to better protect workers and the public.

In many essential industries, the coronavirus risk is particularly acute because of the nature of the work and of the workplaces in which it is conducted. The lack of enforceable, pandemic-specific protections for workers and the hodgepodge of industry responses heighten this danger to workers. Industries affected range from health care to meatpacking, transportation to warehousing.

Heaping injustice on top of danger, coronavirus-related hazards …

June 16, 2020 by Katlyn Schmitt

On June 9, the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change held a remote hearing, “Pollution and Pandemics: COVID-19’s Disproportionate Impact on Environmental Justice Communities.” The Center for Progressive Reform, joined by Fair Farms, Sentinels of Eastern Shore Health (SESH), and the Sussex Health and Environmental Network submitted a fact sheet to subcommittee members outlining the impacts of COVID-19 on the Delmarva Peninsula, along with a number of recommendations for building a more sustainable model for the region.

The area is home to a massive poultry industry, hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. We addressed several of the most severe problems in our fact sheet, including the following.

Public Health Harms from 'Depopulation'

Because of pandemic-driven staffing shortages, approximately 2 million chickens in the region, likely more, have been killed without having been processed into consumer-ready meat. According to the industry, once …

June 15, 2020 by Michael C. Duff

While I suspect that workers' compensation claims, even without the aid of workers' compensation causation presumptions, may fare better than some actuaries suspected (preliminary scuttlebutt of about a 40 percent success rate is higher than I expected), there is no reasonable doubt that large numbers of workers will ultimately go uncovered under workers' compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As I have argued throughout my postings on this blog, workers' compensation exclusions and denials will pose many challenging legal questions. In the meantime, however, many disabled workers will simply find themselves uncompensated (some may receive assistance under the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation Program; eligibility is tricky, however, because under state unemployment compensation law an individual must generally be available for work – and not disabled – in order to qualify, a topic beyond the scope of this post).

In short, there are gaps and fissures appearing under state workers' compensation …

June 11, 2020 by Katie Tracy, Brian Gumm

In a June 11 order, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals denied an AFL-CIO writ of mandamus asking the court to compel the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to do more to protect workers from infectious diseases, such as COVID-19. The order continues the dangerous status quo of workers laboring with no enforceable protections from the highly contagious and deadly virus.

On March 6, the AFL-CIO petitioned OSHA to develop an emergency temporary standard to address the significant hazards of COVID-19 infection in the workplace, followed by a permanent standard to continue safeguarding workers from infectious diseases. From health care, to meatpacking plants, to warehouses, and a variety of other workplaces, employers have not done nearly enough to protect workers from the pandemic. This has resulted in infections, deaths, and enormous economic damage. Despite the grave dangers COVID-19 poses to workers, their families, and their …

June 1, 2020 by James Goodwin

It is now beyond debate – or at least it should be – that we, the people of the United States, have been failed by the Trump administration and its conservative apologists in Congress in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They failed to put in place mechanisms for systematic testing and contact tracing. They failed to coordinate the efficient acquisition of essential medical equipment such as ventilators and personal protective equipment. They failed to provide for an orderly phase-down of non-essential economic activity. They failed to establish clear, enforceable safety standards protect consumers, workers, and their families engaged in essential economic activity. This stopped being a public health crisis a long time ago. The pandemic is now more fairly characterized as a crisis of government.

Fortunately, our democracy has a crucial safety valve that stands ever ready to kick in when our representatives fail to protect us: the …

May 21, 2020 by Michael C. Duff

A recent, interesting lawsuit filed against McDonald's, in Cook County, Illinois, suffers from few of the deficiencies that I have identified in prior postings about public nuisance cases related to COVID-19 (see here and here). The named employee-plaintiffs allege "negligence" in what might look at first blush like a drop-dead workers' compensation case. This time, however, there is a wrinkle: The negligence action is pursued against both franchisor-McDonalds (McDonald's USA) and certain of McDonald's franchise restaurants (McDonald's Restaurant of Illinois, Inc., Lexi Management LLC, and DAK4, LLC). One may be the employer (subject to workers' compensation liability), and the others may not (and therefore be liable in tort). Because you cannot know in advance how the question will come out, you allege negligence with respect to each defendant. This is perfectly sensible.

It will be politically …

May 20, 2020 by Alejandro Camacho, Robert Glicksman

Much of the discussion of the Trump administration's failed handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has focused on its delayed, and then insufficiently urgent, response, as well as the President's apparent effort to talk and tweet the virus into submission. All are fair criticisms. But the bungled initial response—or lack of response—was made immeasurably worse by the administration's confused and confusing allocation of authority to perform or supervise tasks essential to reducing the virus's damaging effects. Those mistakes hold important lessons.

The administration's management of the pandemic has been hampered by misallocation of authority along three different but interacting dimensions. First, it has been marred by overlapping authority that has resulted in waste, while failing to capitalize on this overlap's potential to safeguard against shirking and inaction. Second, it has reflected a thoughtless mix of centralized and …

May 19, 2020 by Katie Tracy

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) Whistleblower Protection Program (WPP) plays a vital role in protecting workers from employers who cut corners on safety or who violate other federal laws: It protects those workers who report such abuses from retaliation, making it harder for employers to get away with breaking the law. Or at least that's how it's supposed to work. The 23 separate federal statutes the program encompasses cover a wide range of corporate wrongdoing, including violations of clean air and drinking water standards, food safety standards, workplace health and safety standards, and much more. If an employer retaliates against an employee for taking any of the actions covered by these laws, the employee may file a retaliation complaint with OSHA for investigation.

OSHA's WPP is critical for ensuring workers have safe and healthy workplaces where they can raise concerns without fear of retaliation. But …

More on CPR's Work & Scholars.
July 13, 2020

The Peril of Ethylene Oxide: Replacing One Public Health Crisis with Another

July 2, 2020

Will COVID-19 'Shock' Workplace Injury Law Like the Railroads of the Early 20th Century?

June 17, 2020

OSHA, Other Agencies Need to Step Up on COVID-19, Future Pandemics

June 16, 2020

Environmental Justice Impacts of COVID-19 on the Delmarva Peninsula

June 15, 2020

Pandemic Heroes Compensation Act of 2020: Preliminary Observations on the Proposed Bill

June 11, 2020

Court Order Okays OSHA Inaction on COVID-19

June 1, 2020

COVID-19 Shows Why We Need to Re-Empower People Through the Civil Courts