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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Law student wants to reform workmen’s comp

    A UA law student is working on an initiative that would amend the Arizona constitution to allow families of workers killed on the job to take legal action against companies that ignore safety regulations.

    Single workers, including students, typically claim no dependants, and according to state law, their families would be entitled to a $5,000 burial fee in the event of their death and nothing more.

    Fred Urbina, a second-year law student at the James E. Rogers College of Law, said he wants to change that.

    “”The current system essentially discriminates against a whole class of people,”” Urbina said.

    He said the changes are focused toward situations in which the employer has willfully disregarded safety regulations.

    “”Eight times out of 10, the system works fine,”” said Urbina. “”We are talking about instances where safety measures have been ignored to save money and result in the worker’s death.””

    Urbina began his work on the initiative when he heard about the death of Robert M. Drake, an industrial worker who was killed on the job.

    Drake, who worked for Triumph Precision Casting in Mesa, was killed while loading a furnace because safety devices controlling the furnace door had been disabled.

    Urbina is working with Drake’s father, Robert, to take the necessary steps to ensure the proposition makes it to the ballot.

    Drake and Urbina met with the Industrial Commission of Arizona in Phoenix last week for advice on how to proceed.

    “”Basically, we are going to take the ‘initiative route,’ which means we have to gather enough signatures to support this change to the constitution,”” Drake said.

    Their goal is to collect at least 250,000 signatures.

    “”We aren’t against corporations, just corporations who have contributed to the death of their employees,”” Drake said, adding that he expects opposition from other groups, including business lobbyists and chambers of commerce.

    “”The opposition will most likely surface when or if it gets on the ballot,”” said Andrew Silverman, a UA law professor.

    Silverman added that pushing the initiative through would be difficult because of the number of signatures required.

    If they collect enough signatures, the voters will be able to decide what happens to companies who cause tragedies by disregarding safety measures, Drake said.

    One such tragedy occurred in 2004, when UA student Joshua Morgan was pulled into a birdseed grinder and killed at Arizona Feeds Country Store, which is owned by Eagle Milling Company.

    According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation, which issued two citations and six $70,000 fines to the company, the machine did not have a safety guard installed to prevent workers from falling into the machine.

    State law entitled Morgan’s family to the $5,000 burial compensation. By accepting the money, the family would waive their right to seek further compensation from the company.

    “”Workmen’s compensation was originally supposed to be a no-fault system, but now it’s almost changed into a shield for employers,”” Urbina said.

    Grieving families may not see the point in jumping over the current legal hurdles to seek fair compensation, Urbina added.

    To file a suit, the family has to wait for OSHA to issue a report on the accident, which could take 12 to 18 months, but current state law requires the family to file suit within a year of the accident, Urbina said.

    OSHA representatives could not be reached for comment.

    If the OSHA report finds that the company was at fault, they will fine the company and require them to implement required safety measures.

    If the case does make it to court, the family still has to prove that the employer caused “”intentional harm,”” according to state law.

    The only way around is for the workers to sign an “”opt out”” waiver when they are hired, which means they choose not to participate in the worker’s compensation program, giving family the right to take legal action if they should be killed on the job.

    One of Urbina’s goals with the proposed changes is to require employers to better educate their workers about their options.

    Both men hope the proposition will be on the ballot in 2008.

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