Archive for February, 2006

News Roundup: AIG settlement, teen safety, odd claims, new blogs

Monday, February 13th, 2006

AIG settlement: Rupal Parekh writes about AIG’s $1.64 billion (that’s billion with a “B”) settlement in Business Insurance this week. Robert Ceniceros reports that, of that amount, $343.6 million is earmarked for workers comp to pay states for alleged underpayment of premium taxes and residual market assessments:

“According to terms of the settlement, AIG will pay $87,801 to New York and $42.3 million will be divided among the other 49 states and the District of Columbia by March 1 for underpayment of workers comp premium taxes for the years 1985 to 1996.

The insurer also will pay $301.2 million into a fund to settle residual market-related claims submitted by states, residual market pools, state funds, assigned risk plans and the National Workers’ Compensation Reinsurance Pool administered by the National Council on Compensation Insurance Inc.”

Doug MacLeod notes that the spotlight might turn to other insurers:

AIG was not the only insurer identified as colluding in the scheme, though: In previous court filings, Mr. Spitzer has alleged that other participants included ACE Ltd., Hartford Financial Services Group Inc., Liberty International Underwriters Inc., the Munich-American RiskPartners unit of American Re Corp. and Zurich American Insurance Co.

Fellow blogger Doug Simpson at Unintended Consequences links to some primary documents in this case.
Teens and work violence – Jordan Barab points us to a worthwhile study by Peer Leaders from MassCOSH’s Teens Lead @ Work and the Brazilian Immigrant Center’s GUMBWEB Youth Program on how teens are affected by workplace violence (PDF). Many teens start work in the retail operations, an industry with high homicide. This initiative was partly in response to this sad event:

“On February 16, 2004 18 year old Cristian Ribeiro Giambrone, who would have graduated from Boston Latin Academy in 2004, was killed by a shoplifter at a CVS in Boston. Cristian took a fatal stab wound to the neck when he and his boss pursued the robber in a chase. Cristian’s boss was also stabbed and suffered a non-fatal wound.”

The report contains recommendations to keep teens safe. It would be nice to see this initiative get some mainstream press.
Unusual claims dept. – In Lackawana County, PA, two courthouse workers have filed workers comp claims related to work exposure to pigeon dung. Apparently, since the $1.8 million cleanup of pigeon droppings, at least one part of the building has “tested positive for fungus associated with pigeon dung that can cause lung disease.” Commissioners disagree about health hazards during the removal of 20 tons of waste. (The mind boggles at 20 tons of pigeon dung.) This bears watching – employees generally face an uphill battle with claims based on environmental exposures.
In New Jersey, Tabitha Sells is awaiting a ruling from the state’s Industrial Commission on the merits of her workers comp claim based on injruies suffered in a kidnapping and assault by her manager and his wife. Allegedly, this assault was triggered because Sells was having an affair with her manager. She was beat with a baseball bat and forced into a trunk of a car, suffering injuries when the car crashed during a police chase. The kidnappers both drew long jail terms for this assault. The victim subsequently filed for workers comp against her employer, Glass Pro, claiming she can no longer work. The insurer denied the claim on the basis that the assault was the result of personal matters (the alleged affair) and was not related to her work. As a local news story notes, not all work violence is compensable – it must be shown to be work-related. This article on compensability as it relates to violence by a Georgia law firm delves into some of the issues.
New blogs – when we first started blogging insurance, it was a lonely little niche indeed, but we are happy to see new blogs cropping up with some regularity. Check out IndemniBlog, which bills itself as “exploring the exciting world of property and casualty insurance.” Heh. Insurance Scrawl, a blog by D.C. attorney Marc Mayerson, focuses on “the law of insurance, the insurance of business, and the business of insurance.”
Insurance humor. Check out The Adventures of Ed the Actuary. Dilbert, be very afraid. Where did we find this gem? Where else would we find it?

What’s the greater obscenity?

Friday, February 10th, 2006

The Indiana AFL-CIO thinks that regulatory fines tell a story of what we value as a society. They note that Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” netted CBS fines of $550,000. In contrast, the total fines levied against the Sago coal mine for 276 safety violations over a two-year period was $33,600. The AFL-CIO has compiled a chart that offers a few other points of comparison – check it out. Good for them for putting this in context. (via Confined Space)
Meanwhile, the Huntington Herald-Dispatch covers the details of the sole surviving miner’s long, slow path to recovery. He didn’t expect to survive – a wrenching good-bye note that he had written to his family just surfaced. His recovery to date has defied medical odds, but his prognosis is still unclear. This article gives a window into the nightmare that that a serious work injury can impose on the family, as well as the worker.
There was another article this past week about the effect that a work injury can have on a family. Eric Pera of The Ledger recounts the story of Eric Guzman, whose legs were crushed and mangled in a work accident last year, from the viewpoint of the family. The emotional and financial toll of a serious work injury can be enormous. Perhaps if more work injuries were reported from the vantage of the workers’ families, it would help drive home the vital importance of prevention.

“Stone Walls and Steel Bars” for Business Decisions

Wednesday, February 8th, 2006

Business decisions other than outright fraud don’t often lead to prison, but here are a couple of situations where this is likely to happen. The Insider has been tracking Rhode Island’s Station Night Club fire, which took place three years ago. One hundred people died in a raging inferno that reached 1800 degrees in less than two minutes. The blaze was triggered by the (illegal) use of fireworks, in a club where highly flammable acoustical tile had been (inappropriately) installed. In the first criminal trial stemming from this sad event, Daniel Biechele, 29, the business agent for the rock band, Great White, pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter. He faces up to 10 years in prison. The fate of the bar’s owners, Jeffrey and Michael Derderian, is still up in the air, although it seems likely that Biechele will testify against them. They, too, are likely to be headed for stone walls and steel bars.
Bus to Nowhere
You may also recall the horrendous incident during the chaotic evacuation from Hurricane Katrina, when a Texas bus caught fire and incinerated 23 nursing home residents. Global Limo, Inc., and its owner, James H. Maples, have been indicted for conspiring to falsify driver time records and failing to inspect the company’s bus fleet to make sure the buses were safe.
The driver and some passengers escaped, but others were trapped when oxygen tanks on board fed the flames and exploded.
Maples and Global Limo are charged with three counts each: conspiring to falsify documents to allow drivers to go long stretches without appropriate rest, failing to inspect and maintain company buses and failing to require drivers to complete vehicle inspection reports. The conspiracy charge carries a five-year maximum prison sentence and a $250,000 fine.
The Comp Dimension
It’s important to note that a previous grand jury declined to indict the driver. They apparently determined that he was not responsible for the explosion. This will raise some interesting issues from the workers comp perspective. The driver may try to sue his former employer, charging that their criminal negligence in the maintenance of the bus injured him above and beyond the type of injuries covered by workers comp. In other words, because the employer may be found criminally negligent, the driver may be able to transcend the “exclusive remedy” of comp and access tort remedies for his pain and suffering (which are not compensable under comp).
Readers may recall that in the Station Night Club fire, the Derderian brothers neglected to secure workers compensation coverage for their employees – 4 of whom died in the fire. They managed to dodge a $1 million fine by filing for bankruptcy, but the long winding road toward civil damages and prison still lies ahead of them. It’s not often that business owners go to jail for their decisions, but these are two instances that appear to reach the criminal level. I don’t think that these are evil people who intended to do harm, but they now face the grave consequences of their business decisions. It’s enough to give any manager pause.

Avian Bird Flu: When Second Class Workers Meet a First Class Hazard

Tuesday, February 7th, 2006

[Warning: This is not appropriate reading for bedtime.]
I’m not sure where the complacency about undocumented workers comes from, but I suspect that it’s a combination of racism and economics. We tolerate the presence of these second class workers because it results in cheaper products and services for us, and because we don’t really have to look at these struggling immigrants very often. They operate in the shadows of our culture. These undocumented workers are transient, unrepresented, and frequently unwilling to report injuries or illnesses because of real concerns about their continued employment or their immigration status. They work in substandard conditions, with few or no benefits. But that doesn’t impact us directly, does it?
Well, think again. Our colleague Peter Rousmaniere, who tracks the issue of immigrant workers, has posted a truly terrifying scenario where the second class worker becomes the carrier for an unstoppable disease.
It Cannot Happen Here…Can It?
Peter links to the Occupational Health Disaster Expert Network (OHDEN), a website run by Gary Greenberg MD. The goal of this well-documented and extensively linked site is to speed up transmission of time sensitive information on high profile occupational risks.
Dr. Greenberg tells us that the danger from a new influenza will begin when its DNA combines with the ordinary “flu” we experience every winter. If (or when) this strain develops, the public health fear is of a highly transmissible virus
with frequently fatal consequences. The resulting novel germ could then spread through our species unimpeded by any prior immunity, and would kill millions before effective vaccination and antiviral therapies might bring it under control. This would no longer be an”avian” influenza, but an accidental hybrid, an intensely lethal human
A Workplace Illness
Avian influenza is an occupational disease involving poultry workers. So it is in the poultry-processing workplace that the we find the intersection of two distinct issues: undocumented immigrant workers and flu pandemic risk. Poultry workers are largely foreign-born and poorly educated. They routinely work in horrendous conditions. (Again, that’s ok, as long as we can get a good price on chicken parts in the grocery store…) Even without viral dangers, Greenberg points out that these workers are exposed to intense levels of ammonia, organic dust, disinfectant, environmental cold, bird-specific fungi and bacteria, allergens, insect pathogens, and then the violent instruments and machinery required for the production of boneless filets and dressed, plucked fryers. Yikes!
I won’t go into the ergonomic horrors of chicken processing jobs. Again, we all know it’s bad, but no one forced these people to come here. No one made them take these jobs! And yes, we know that the pay isn’t great, but it’s better than these workers would find in their home countries. As for benefits, they are unlikely to be able to afford (or qualify for) health insurance, and if undocumented, they are also ineligible for Medicaid. Many are migrants, and so they have no medical records, no continuity of care, and no routine access to health monitoring. They are off the radar screen and beyond reach of our medical system. So what’s the big deal?
Here’s the point where the proverbial chickens may come home to roost. Greenberg tells us that the creation of a deadly new virus requires just one single transformation – a single virus in a single victim. Once this killer virus is set loose, the costs to humankind will be beyond the calculations of all but the most intrepid actuaries.
While many people apparently feel either cultural superiority or indifference toward the millions of immigrant workers in this country, our fates are inextricably joined. Their second class status, combined with marginal working conditions, may place them at greater risk for the initial development of the virus. But once developed, the virus will make no distinction between second and first class. There will be no reliable barriers to transmission. We’ll all face the same, irresistible force, much like the tsunami that tore through Asia in 2004.
Greenberg recommends a few practical steps to alleviate the risk of this unprecedented catatrophe. The steps are reasonable, relatively simple, and not all that expensive:
– All poultry workers need to be vaccinated against seasonal
influenza. This recommendation should be achieved worldwide. Urgent
action will be required for workers in the northern hemisphere (with
our own flu season already here).
– Free and urgent treatment of poultry workers’ respiratory illnesses
should be provided, regardless of immigration status and insurance
– Health status among these workers needs to be evaluated, monitored
and reported.
Greenberg’s recommendations are prudent and doable. But there is no way they will be implemented. Our national denial of the immigrant problem fatally extends even to a situation where we are all directly at risk. Greenberg will be viewed as just another “Chicken Little,” claiming that the sky is falling. Politically, it’s likely to prove impossible to elevate immigrant workers to the point where they are both acknowledged and accepted, let alone routinely treated for respitory illness.
If we’re really lucky, there may be few direct consequences. The pandemic might not happen. If, however, Greenberg’s worst case scenario takes place, we will finally be confronted with the real cost of our current indifference. Then, of course, it will be too late.
At that point, I imagine that someone will start a new blog called “Journal of the Plague Year.” Let’s just hope we are all around to read it.

News roundup: blogs, RTW, meth users, ethics, and more

Monday, February 6th, 2006

Insurance weblogs. We are featured in an article about weblogs by Therese Rutkowski that appeared in the December issue of Insurance Networking News: Online Soapboxes Get Down to Business. Several of our fellow bloggers are cited too.
Returning to Work: Overcoming Injury and Achieving Success – an article written by Kurt Schuhl and Michael McMahon the January issue of Risk Management magazine.
Meth abusers cost employers millions – A recent study determined that each meth-using employee costs his or her employer $47,500 a year in terms of lost productivity, absenteeism, higher health-care costs and higher workers’ compensation costs.
Off-the-job injuries – A Stockton California police officer was denied workers comp for an off-duty injury he suffered while playing basketball. According to the court: “When an employee is injured during voluntary, off-duty participation in a recreational, social, or athletic activity, Labor Code section 3600, subdivision (a)(9) provides that the injury is not covered by workers’ compensation, unless the activity was “a reasonable expectancy of” the employment or it was “expressly or impliedly required by” the employment.”
The Weekly Toll. – Tammy at Confined Space reminds us all of the real reasons why we should be doing the work that we do – a grim reminder to redouble our efforts to keep workers safe.
Immigrant worker injuries – Our colleague Peter Rousmaniere points to a recent Massachusetts study that offers a breakdown of hospitalizations by medical diagnosis, job and ethnic orientation. The study shows a relationship between the type of job and the type of injury.
Drug dispensing by docs – Joe Paduda notes that workers comp prescription drug costs are driven by utilization and price. But are some docs compromised by a profit motive via on-site dispensaries now in vogue?
Looking out for the workers – RawblogXport reminds points to an item that paints a dismal portrait of the economic status of the American worker, who is working harder and longer for less pay. “For the first time on record, U.S. household incomes failed to increase for five straight years – and that record includes the Great Depression. And the minimum wage, adjusted for inflation, is actually worth less today than it was before the last increase was passed 10 years ago”
Is the U.S. economy strong? – In terms of wages and jobs, the U.S. economy is not as strong as it might appear, according to some recent economic studies, and as reported recently in the New York Times.
Ethics – According to a survey by theAmerican Management Association (AMA), pressure from management to meet unrealistic business objectives and deadlines is the leading factor for most unethical corporate behavior. The desire to further one’s career and to protect one’s livelihood are ranked second and third, respectively, as leading factors.
Scandal watch. Speaking of ethics, Business Insurance reports that an AIG settlement with the SEC and the NY AG may be pending. Meanwhile, Judy Greenwald speculates that there may be bigger fish to fry in the wake of recent indictments of senior execs at General Re Corp. and American International Group Inc.

“Open House” at Business Insurance this month

Thursday, February 2nd, 2006

Business Insurance has a free access “open house” at their site from now through February 28th. The open house allows full access to current issues as well as access to archived material since 1996. For those who aren’t familiar with the publication, it’s a well-respected and established industry trade issued weekly by Crain Communications. In its own words:

Business Insurance serves business executives who are responsible for the purchase and administration of corporate insurance/self-insurance programs, encompassing both property and liability insurance and employee benefit programs, including life, health and pensions. Each week, the printed publication includes news and feature articles related to these key functions. From its Website, BI also delivers current news and information on a daily basis.”

The open house is a good way to explore the site if you aren’t familiar with the publication, and if you have any topics you’ve been meaning to research, now’s the time. They are also offering a significant discount on first-time or renewal subscriptions during this time.

Wired for Trouble: Blackberry Thumb, Cell Phone Elbow, IPod Ear

Wednesday, February 1st, 2006

The Insider has warned tech-savvy readers that many of our indespensable gadgets can be the source of injuries. A year ago we wrote about Blackberry Thumb, to which we now return. Perhaps this is risk management on a small and highly personal level, but it’s risk management nonetheless. Despite the fact that few people seem concerned, in the interests of public awareness, we now expand our focus from the lowly thumb to include elbows, ears, and perhaps even the brain.
Thumb Troubles
People addicted to their Blackberry’s – or to text messaging on other portable devices – may find themselves experiencing some pain and numbness, possible symptoms of “Blackberry Thumb.” It’s really just another word for tendonitis and the latest incarnation of what used to be called “Nintendonitis.” Of course, if Blackberry has to shut down due to a long simmering patent dispute (the company appears to have lost out at the final level of judicial appeal), “Blackberry Thumb” will disappear as all Blackberry users inadvertantly follow the doctors’s advice for treating the ailment: lay off thumb typing for a while. If the shut down is avoided, loyal users in need of a break could try one-hand operation, typing in the letters with the blunt end of a pencil or a stylus, or simply typing shorter messages.
Moving up the arm, we find that people who spend a lot of time on their phones (cellular or land based) may be susceptible to cubital tunnel syndrome, a kind of “tennis elbow” that is caused by pressure on the ulnar nerve. The symptoms are very similar to the pain that comes from hitting your funny bone, which is actually the ulnar nerve located on the inside of the elbow. The nerve runs through a passage called the cubital tunnel. When this area becomes irritated from injury or pressure, it can lead to the syndrome.
Numbness on the inside of the hand and in the ring and little fingers is an early sign of cubital tunnel syndrome. (Are you feeling these symptoms already?) The numbness may develop into pain. The numbness is often felt when the elbows are bent for long periods, such as when talking on the phone or while sleeping. The hand and thumb may also become clumsy as the muscles are impacted.
The solution is simple, but many people fail to follow it: Keep switching hands (and ears) as you talk. Or even better, get a headset.
What did you say?
Traveling further up the body, we come to the head – source of many of the world’s problems, indeed! Apple’s little Nano/Ipod devices have become enormously popular (over 22.5 million sold in 2005). This line of elegant, miniature products enables people to shut out the world, no matter where they are, and listen to music (or books, lectures, TV shows, whatever). The danger is the in-the-ear design of IPod earplugs: you are literally pumping sound directly into the ear drum. With the long battery life of these devices, people can place a strain on their eardrums for which evolution has not really prepared us.
Once again, the solution is relatively simple. Keep the volume at a reasonable level and take frequent breaks. You also might want to limit the heavy metal bands.
Moderation in an Immoderate World
In yesterday’s State of the Union address, the president acknowledges that we are addicted to oil. (That’s a bit like doctors telling us that we as a nation have a problem with prescription medications.) We are addicted to far more than oil. Omni-present devices connect us (phones and internet), disconnect us (music) and distract us (games). Our brains are on overload.
Here’s a prescription that doesn’t require a note from the doctor: a few times a week, leave behind your cell phone/Blackberry/Treo, IPod, portable CD player/radio, put on your sneakers and go out for a walk. As far as I can tell, walking is unambiguously good for you. It connects you the old fashion way: through the simple enjoyment of the sights, smells and sounds of the world around you. And the only energy consumed is your own.