One of my favorite Twitter feeds to follow is that of @Heather_Poole. Ms. Poole is a flight attendant and best-selling author of "Cruising Altitude: Tales of Crashpads, Crew Drama and Crazy Passengers." I enjoy her tweets because in addition to random tweets about travel and life on a commercial airliner, Ms. Poole takes the time to tweet about issues that are important to society. She may be tweeting pictures of her latest travel destination one minute, the next she is tweeting about human trafficking or airline safety or women’s rights. Unfortunately, the issue that has taken up most of her tweets lately is that of flight attendants getting sick on the job. What appears to have happened is the uniforms that crew members are required to wear are making flight attendants sick. In workers compensation parlance, we call this an occupational disease.
Everyone is familiar with workers compensation that pays for "specific event" injuries–the ones where a worker slips and falls or has equipment dropped them from above or is involved in a car wreck in a company vehicle. But if you develop a disease from being exposed to a toxin, you can collect workers compensation benefits the same as if you sustained a specific event trauma. So, if you worked as a sandblaster, for instance, and over many years you are breathing in silica and dust particles, or if you are a welder breathing in welding fumes over many years, you may be entitled to compensation for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But these conditions are relatively easy to prove because the of the existence of scientific studies. Most occupational diseases, on the other hand, are exceedingly difficult to prove thanks to the impediments set forth by the court system and the Texas Division of Workers’ Compensation.
To recover workers compensation benefits for an occupational disease, it is not enough to show that an injured worker was exposed to a toxin at work–the worker must also prove that the exposure is the cause of the individual’s disease. So, for example, a person could work at a feed lot where cow birds are leaving droppings everywhere and if those bird droppings make the worker sick, that worker, working a minimum wage job, will have to be examined at a specialized hospital and tested for an occupational disease. Or another example might be a clean up crew that is contracted to go onto military bases and clean up the lead bullets from the firing range–then a worker gets lead poising. Another example would be at your local hospital where the housekeeping crew comes in to remove soiled linens and change the sheets–only sometimes the crew is accidentally exposed to harmful bacteria. These are all examples our office has encountered. They are also representative of the main problem with occupational disease cases. These cases are difficult to prove and usually occur in individuals the least able to afford to pay for testing.
It would seem that proving that the exposure to a toxin is the cause of a person’s disease is common-sense approach to dealing with occupational injuries. But this over-reliance on medical proof eliminates other common sense approaches. The main common sense approach would be looking at other similarly situated employees. For instance, if everyone hired to clean up a firing range suddenly came down with lead poisoning, what are the odds that this didn’t happen at work? If a bacterium is often found in hospitals but rarely found outside hospitals, what are the odds that more than one hospital employee sent to clean up a room would contract a disease from a particular bacteria exposure? Isn’t there a place for looking at the workers as a class and asking about rates of incidents among them?
When you look through Ms. Poole’s twitter feed, you see one account after another account, after another account, of flight attendants having allergic reactions to their uniforms. Their reactions are similar: hives, trouble breathing, swollen glands, sore throats. Under current Texas law, each individual flight attendant has to prove that for each person, they are sick from toxins found in their uniform and not from catching something from a fellow passenger or just getting sick at home. Ms. Poole found that the industry spent one million dollars on a study to determine that their uniforms were not hazardous to flight attendants’ health. Think about the unfair bargaining power of the industry and their insurance companies versus each individual flight attendant. The industry has the resources to pay for studies saying there is nothing harmful in the uniforms. And yet, the numbers say that this just isn’t true. In Texas, though, junk science beats common sense in a court room–because junk science can be bought if you have a million dollars.