On May 7, 2012 Sylbert Stewart fell from the edge of a dipping tank into a pool of chemicals, while cleaning the top of ventilation ducts in the course of his employment at the Belmont metal finishing factory where he has been employed for fourteen years. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited his employer for three separate violations in connection with the incident. Mr. Stewart sustained second and third degree burns from his thighs to his feet, and doctors removed skin from his back, chest, and arms for skin grafts to wrap around his legs.
Mr. Stewart received temporary total disability benefits through the Massachusetts workers’ compensation system, which pays 60 percent of his wage loss, and the full cost of medical treatment. However, he did not receive compensation for the scarring on his legs, which covers 38 percent of his total body surface. Currently, in order to be compensated for permanent scarring under the Massachusetts Workers Compensation Act a worker’s blemish has to be on the face, neck, or hands. Thus, if workers are disfigured on their arms, legs, or torsos they do not receive compensation. The disfigurement portion of the Act is obviously pro employer and insurer, which simply fails to take into account the burden it places on the daily life of an employee, like Sylbert Stewart.
A bill introduced to the Massachusetts State Senate this year could possibly expand benefits for permanent scarring under the Workers Compensation Act. If passed, the bill would eliminate the requirement that the disfigurement be on the face, neck, or hands. It also would change the amount of maximum compensation from $15,000.00 to 30 times the average weekly wage (presently $1,214.90) of all employees in Massachusetts. However, similar disfigurement based bills with like minded agendas were filed the previous two years but were never brought to the table. Prior to the 1990’s the scar based aspect of the Massachusetts Workers Compensation Act was far more generous. Back in the early 1990’s, a series of legislation reforms by then Governor William Weld decreased rights for the injured worker. His aim was to monitor the appropriateness of medical services and reduce workers compensation health care costs. But what it really did was hurt injured employee’s worse then they already had been. It cut temporary total disability benefits from two-thirds to sixty percent and reduced the maximum duration for collecting benefits from 260 weeks to three years.
The problem is that employers and insurers see scarring as a pure cosmetic issue when in fact it is far more than that. It is a quality of life issue and many times these disfigurements disallow employees the ability to obtain employment post-injury even after they have reached maximum medical improvement and have been cleared to work. As of now, employees rights groups, workers compensation lawyers who see the impact of disfigurement injuries first hand, and researchers extensively support the proposed disfigurement bill.