With two of his many recent legislative vetoes, Governor Christie has sent a clear message to our child welfare workers, public safety workers and emergency responders: we expect you to risk your health and even your life to protect our children, our families and our communities but, should workplace hazards injure or sicken you, you are on your own.
Day in and day out, firefighters, police, emergency responders, nurses and social workers face threats to their health – from physical assaults to exposure to infectious diseases and toxic chemicals. Yet, with his veto pen, Governor Christie once again refused to protect the people who have dedicated their lives to protecting us during dangerous and even catastrophic events.
The first bill vetoed by the Governor, the ‘Thomas P Canzanella 21st Century First Responders Protection Act’, would have eased the burden of proof needed for first responders to receive workers’ compensation if they developed life-threatening illnesses after toxic or other hazardous exposures.
During a public health crisis, it is first responders, including police, firefighters, EMTs and nurses who we rely upon to protect us. As both paid and volunteer First Responders, these men and women respond to catastrophic incidents, often without knowing the identity of the specific toxins, carcinogens or infectious agents they are facing.
In their efforts to receive financial protection from our workers’ compensation system, First Responders often have to fight long and costly legal battles to prove the link between their exposure and subsequent illnesses, some of which can present years or even decades later. The Canzanella bill would have eased the burden of proof for death or disability resulting from exposure to toxins or other specified hazards experienced by a public safety worker engaged in response to a terrorist attack, epidemic, or other catastrophic emergency.
New Jersey, one of the most densely populated states, has more than 3000 facilities that store or use hazardous substances. As a state with a highly concentrated chemical industry, NJ should be setting the standard for protecting public safety workers who rush to a catastrophe to save lives. Instead, Governor Christie vetoed this bill for the second time, even after sponsors amended the bill.
Governor Christie also vetoed ‘Leah’s Law’, which would have provided security personnel for social workers in offices providing care to children at risk. These offices have been the site of physical assaults and threats to caseworkers on numerous occasions, and last year, a social worker nearly lost her life after she was brutally attacked. The attack took place shortly after Governor Christie’s budget cuts led to the removal of security personnel from the premises. In the year since that attack, there have been more than a dozen threats made to Department of Children and Families (DCF) workers, as well as physical attacks on DCF workers in the field.
The nearly-fatal attack on Leah Coleman, a social worker stabbed 21 times in a Department of Children and Families office, brought the dangers of social work into sharp relief. In addition to social workers, HPAE nurses provide care to children at risk in these offices. In fact, it was the nurses who saved Leah’s life. Leah’s Law would have provided security personnel, metal detectors and panic buttons in Department of Children and Families offices, and escorts for staff going into homes where they have previously faced threats or where family members have a history of violence.
Those of us in social services or emergency response know too well that our occupations are at the highest risk for many injuries and illnesses – some life threatening. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration more assaults (48 percent) occur in the health care and social services industry than any other. And a 2010 U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics report stated that healthcare workers experienced an injury/illness incidence rate of 5.2 out of every 100 full-time workers, a number well ahead of construction and manufacturing. On average, 31 firefighters were killed on the job each year from 2009 to 2013 (BLS) and 14,700 suffered work-related nonfatal injuries and illnesses that resulted in time away from work.
These were two very different pieces of legislation, but they shared a common goal: protecting the people who every day face situations that most of us would not willingly, whether it be running into burning buildings, responding to toxic catastrophes, or treating and caring for Ebola-infected patients or mentally ill and violent clients.
These are the jobs we have chosen, knowing the hazards, but committed to our work. What we ask for, in turn, are reasonable measures to minimize our risks, and, and for our families to be cared for in the event we are harmed, or even killed as a result of our work. These vetoes show a disregard not only for the workers, but for the children, families, patients and communities taken care of by nurses, firefighters, police, emergency personnel and social workers.
Both of these vetoes disappointed – and even enraged – our state’s first responders, nurses and social workers. While dangers can be a part of the job – we should not simply shrug and accept it, but should expect our elected officials to work with us to minimize the risk – for our lives, our families and the communities we serve. Governor Christie has let us down, again.
Ann Twomey is president of the Health Professionals and Allied Employees