I’ve previously expressed my criticism (disgust) of efforts by a few Alabama Legislators to strip workers of the minimum protections provided by our work comp laws. Every year, the same few legislators try to gut the Alabama Workers’ Compensation Act. This small group usually starts by introducing bills to cut benefits for the most disabled. Cutting benefits for totally disabled workers. Shifting medical benefits (and costs) from their rich insurance friends who collected premiums to taxpayer-funded sources. Preventing benefits from being adjusted to increased costs of living. These few legislators forgot the working men and women who built our communities.
Today, I want to talk about workplace safety. The true cost of workplace injuries and disabilities is borne by the injured workers and their families. The legislature could really make an impact on the number of workplace injuries by pushing companies to make their worksites safer. From top to bottom, our legislature could make safety an important issue to all. However, this is not the concept of safety used in Alabama’s Workers’ Compensation laws. Instead, our laws place almost all the burdens of safety on the front line worker and NOT the company or its management. Why is worker safety a one-way street where the worker bears all the burden and most of the cost?
Let me give you three examples to prove my point:
Safety Rules — Alabama law denies workers’ compensation benefits to injured workers who intentionally ignore a safety rule. I don’t disagree with this concept. Yet, safety should be more than a means of controlling compensation costs. Instead, the company should have a culture of safety that protects workers. If safety is really important, why should workers be the only ones penalized for unsafe conduct? Should the company be penalized for an injury caused by its refusal to follow known safety rules? The Alabama Legislature should consider this issue. This is a concept that could be easily tied to established safety rules such as those used by OSHA. Other states, like Wisconsin, provide penalties that are applied fairly to both sides. Management that ignores safety should share in the risk of penalties for conduct putting all of us at risk.
Horseplay — Alabama law denies workers’ compensation benefits to an employee injured while engaging in horseplay on the job. I don’t disagree with this concept. Yet, again, the penalty is one-sided. I have handled claims where innocent employees were injured by the horseplay of others at the worksite. In some of these cases, management had allowed a culture of dangerous horseplay putting all employees at risk of injury. Face it, it’s usually the innocent bystander hurt by the misconduct of others. If a company knowingly allows an employee to continue engaging in unsafe behavior around others without discipline, should the company be penalized when an injury results to an innocent co-worker? If we want to penalize unsafe horseplay, shouldn’t penalties apply to both management and employees. I think so. I believe rules against horseplay should be applied fairly to both sides.
Safety Equipment — Our work comp laws deny benefits to workers’ who refuse to use safety equipment under certain situations. I understand the rule but it should be applied fairly both to management and employees. In so many of my cases, the injured employee would have gladly used personal protective equipment or other safety devices if provided. Countless times, I’ve sat across from employees as they described an unsafe work environment lacking required safety gear. While most companies provide their employees safety gear, a few do not. A few companies fail to protect their workers. These few unsafe companies create needless risk of personal injury. Often, OSHA or other regulations mandate specific safety equipment be provided. The standards are often well-known but ignored by a few companies. Where required safety equipment is not provided and an injury results, the company should be penalized for a resulting injury. Like the other examples, the question is whether safety should be a concern for all parties or simply a means by which to deny a claim after an injury occurs. I believe Alabama should re-think its focus and make worker safety a concern for all.
Workplace safety is essential. Do we want to create a real culture of safety for our workers? If so, safety concepts should apply to both the company and its individual workers. Where injury results from a refusal to follow known rules or use required safety equipment, the penalties should be applied fairly to the responsible party, whether it is the company or individual. If you are an injured worker and the carrier has denied your claim based on a safety issue, you should seek legal advice immediately. An attorney may be able to help you fight the denial.
From its office in Huntsville, the Blackwell Law Firm helps injured workers across Alabama. We have tried workers’ compensation and personal injury cases to verdict in counties across the state. If you suffered a serious workplace injury and have questions, let us know. We are happy to provide answers or advice. Consultations are always free and confidential.