Tsunami Aftermath: Disaster, Contract Labor, and Workers’ Comp

They have become known in the press around the world as the “Fukushima 50,” the 50 anonymous workers who venture into the dark, flooded depths of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the wake of the March earthquake and tsunami that sent the plant’s systems spinning perilously out of control.  Ethicists and labor rights activists wring their hands over the morality of sending in civil workers into what is certain to be a radioactive environments while editorials and politicians praise their bravery and selflessness in the face of disaster.

In the wake of their acts of bravery, labor advocates began to ask important questions about these nuclear workers’ access to health care and workers’ compensation benefits should they suffer any ill effects from their important work.  After all, a startling “88 percent” of Japanese nuclear workers are contract workers with uncertain access to benefits, according to the NYTimes.com.

The New York Times noted these workers are “emblematic of Japan’s two-tiered work force, with an elite class of highly paid employees at top companies and a subclass of laborers who work for less pay, have less security and receive fewer benefits.”  The Times reports that the medical care and benefits for these workers tends to dwindle as you work your way down the ladder from contracted worker, to subcontracted, to even sub-subcontracted.  Essentially “nuclear migrants,” these workers attempt to conceal injuries or exposure to radiation so they can retain their employment.

As the United States re-evaluates its own nuclear power industry, the spotlight has shifted to how the U.S. treats those workers who are asked to put themselves in jeopardy in what is essentially a work situation.  Just today, Scientific American reports that the U.S. nuclear safety regulator is investigating how three nuclear workers in Nebraska were exposed to radiation in a workplace setting in early April. Scientific American writes, “The three workers triggered radiation alarms by incorrectly moving a radioactive tube on April 3. They immediately set the tube down and fled the area.  Nebraska Public Power District, which operates the Cooper Nuclear Station, does not believe the workers were exposed to radiation above regulatory limits, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said in a release.”  There is no word if these workers were subcontractors or full-time employees.

Of course, if the United States suffered a disaster so severe that it forced not only nuclear workers, but emergency workers to enter extreme environments to save lives, the most obvious, and unfortunate parallel is 9/11.  Chris Bragg wrote as late as 2007 that “many cleanup workers who rushed to help the city in its time of need say they have developed serious physical conditions due to that work: 756 cleanup volunteers and many more paid workers have submitted claims. Many claimants say, however, the Workers’ Compensation Board has been slow in helping them get back on their feet.”  Workers employed by the city, such as firefighters and police officers, go through a tailored compensation process.  But contract workers are at the mercy of the city’s Workers’ Compensation Board, and literally hundreds of articles over the years have detailed their struggle.

Labor & Industries experts will continue to watch the drama unfolding in Japan with an eye to how workers in the U.S. would be treated in similar circumstances.  If anything, the situation reveals the need for greater protection of subcontracted workers of all stripes, especially in terms of workers’ compensation, before a disaster happens and workers must rush into the unknown.  If you have been injured and have questions about your employment status as it relates to workers’ compensation, contact an expert Washington Labor & Industries Attorney.

Emery Reddy