May 5, 2015 Kim Krisberg 0Comment

The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing a new rule that would prohibit coal companies from withholding medical evidence from workers with black lung disease who are seeking compensation, reports Chris Hamby at the Center for Public Integrity.

In its proposed rule, the agency cited the case of coal miner Gary Fox as part of its justification. Fox’s story was also featured in the Center for Public Integrity’s Breathless and Burdened series, which investigated how coal companies undermine sick workers’ benefit claims. Hamby, who authored many of the Breathless and Burdened reports, writes that in Fox’s case, the “law firm withheld two key medical reports indicating that Fox had an advanced stage of black lung. To support his family, Fox returned to the mines to work for five more years, getting progressively sicker.” Hamby reports on the new Department of Labor proprosal:

The proposal authorizes sanctions for failing to disclose evidence. These could include disqualifying an attorney for the remainder of the case or invalidating a previous denial of benefits. The Center investigation identified cases in which Jackson Kelly (the law firm that fought against Fox’s claim) refused to comply with an administrative law judge’s order to turn over documents or information, then argued that the judge had no authority to impose sanctions.

A separate provision outlined in the proposed rule would prevent companies from ceasing benefits payments while trying to mount a new legal challenge to a previous award — something the department called a “recurring problem.”

Comments on the new proposal are being accepted through June 29. To read Hamby’s full article, visit the Center for Public Integrity.

In other news:

Huffington Post: Writer Dave Jamieson reports that congressional Democrats have introduced a new bill to boost the minimum wage to $12 per hour by 2020, which is nearly $2 more than a previous legislative effort to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., introduced the new proposal in the Senate, while Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is pushing it in the House — read their news release here. The bill would raise the minimum wage to $8, then a dollar a year until 2020. Jamieson writes: “The new bill is no more likely than its predecessor to garner support from congressional Republicans, who control both chambers and have so far staunchly opposed raising the federal wage floor. But the proposal made Thursday shows Democrats’ desire to put the wage issue front and center heading into the 2016 election season, and their willingness to wager that Americans will like the idea of a more robust minimum wage hike.”

Houston Chronicle: Local OSHA officials in Houston are educating employers about the dangers workers face during post-storm cleanups after one worker died after being electrocuted and two more were seriously injured. According to reporter L.M. Sixel, OSHA described the fatality and two injuries as a “mini-trend.” The OSHA action also illustrates the impact of new federal reporting rules. Sixel writes: “(Joann) Figueroa, (area director for OSHA’s Houston North office) said she grew alarmed when her office became aware of the cluster of accidents and she credited a change in federal regulations beginning Jan. 1 that requires companies to notify OSHA within 24 hours if an employee is admitted to a hospital. Employers also must notify the agency if an employee loses an eye or undergoes amputation. Under the old rules, employers didn’t have to call OSHA unless there was a fatality.”

The Hill: Reporter Tim Devaney writes that OSHA is moving to address workplace discrimination against transgender employees, partnering with the National Center for Transgender Equality to issue related health and safety guidance. In an OSHA news release, the agency noted that 55 percent of transgender people recently surveyed said they had lost a job due to bias, while 22 percent of workers in the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that they were denied access to gender-appropriate restrooms on the job.

Upworthy: Brandon Weber writes about the opening of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum later this month. The museum will honor the struggles and battles of coal miners in the early 20th century, such as the Battle of Blair Mountain, which was the largest insurrection in the U.S. outside of the Civil War. In describing the experience of coal miners, Weber writes about a history that few Americans learn about in school: “These bloody conflicts drew the nation’s attention to the plight of the long-suffering mine workers, and unions began to understand that they needed to fight for laws that allowed them to organize and that penalized companies that broke the law. …For these brave workers, the American dream was something they had to fight for, something they died for, and something they wanted to pass on to future generations, despite the efforts of the coal companies to prevent them.” Visit the museum’s website here.

Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.

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