A recent report by the AFL-CIO on workplace safety, Death on the Job: The Toll of Neglect, showed a growing problem in Kansas. In 2011, 78 workers were killed on the job in Kansas, a rate of 5.9 deaths per 100,000 workers. Additionally, 41,400 workplace injuries and illnesses were reported in the state, a rate per worker higher than the national average. Sadly, this has earned Kansas a dismal national ranking of 40th in workplace safety, with 1 being the best and 50 being the worst.
While these numbers would be cause for concern for most reasonable people and perhaps spur corrective action by state policy makers, the Kansas Legislature has taken an entirely different tack. For the Legislature, the safety of Kansas worksites is not the problem; it's the Kansas worker who's to blame. Thus, lawmakers have embarked on an effort to alter the system for compensating injured workers to rectify their perceived problem.
Bruce Tunnell, Executive Vice-President of the Kansas AFL-CIO put it this way, “Far too many people are dying on the job in this state and instead of strengthening protections for working people, our elected officials are further rigging the system against Kansas workers. Their misplaced priorities will mean that the health and well-being of more working people are at risk on the job."
Now most legislators would simply dismiss this statement as mere hyperbole. But a look at recent actions by the Kansas Legislature lends merit to the notion that our lawmakers are in fact "rigging" the system against injured workers.
Take for example 2013 Senate Bill 187. This bill, pushed by the Kansas Department of Labor and signed by the Governor, changes the way workers compensation judges are selected and places the appointment of these judges in the hands of businesses and workers comp insurance providers. Business and insurance carriers are litigants in the system and have a vested interest in the outcome. Allowing these interests to hand select the judges makes a mockery of the system and makes a fair hearing for injured workers all but impossible.
But it doesn't stop there. Our lawmakers went even further with 2013 Senate Bill 73. Instead of rigging the workers comp hearing process, this bill goes directly after injured workers. Under the bill, injured workers will have far less time to even report a workplace injury and be eligible to file a legitimate claim. If they don't meet this new restrictive timeline, they're out of luck. Additionally, the bill throws out long-standing guidelines used by doctors to rate the level of impairment of injured workers, and thus their compensation, in favor of new guidelines that have been questioned by practitioners in other states as being too costly and stringent.
The 2013 Legislature will go down as one of the most anti-worker ever to grace the halls of the Capitol...and for good reason. Kansas is one of the ten most deadly states when it comes to a worker's safety. Unfortunately, for the families of workers who have lost their lives and the thousands of other Kansans injured on the job, their elected officials think the problem is theirs alone to bear.