Seven years ago, in a breakthrough state Workers' Compensation case, the widow of a city Bus Maintainer was awarded death benefits because a judge found his death was caused by chronic exposure to diesel fumes.
Thanks to a law signed Oct. 29 by Governor Hochul, families who lost a spouse, parent or even grandparent to cancer under similar circumstances will have one year to file a claim.
'Benefits to Dependents'
"The exposure of workers to diesel exhaust within the transportation industry is extensive and damaging," according to the bill's legislative statement. "The International Research on Cancer IARC) of the World Health Organization (WHO), together with other scientific groups, has recently recognized that diesel exhaust is a Class 1 carcinogen. The public policy of the State of New York states that Workers' Compensation benefits shall be provided to the dependents of workers who die as a result of workplace accidents and illnesses."
"Thousands of workers have been exposed to countless hours of diesel-fume exhaust, and many of them have been diagnosed with malignancies and cancers. And unfortunately, many have died as a result," said John Dearie, a Workers' Compensation attorney, who has been a pioneer in diesel-fume litigation.
The one-year window applies to the families of any workers in the state whose chronic exposure to diesel fumes was a contributing factor to a cancer death.
Mr. Dearie said, "We already have many, many, cases, and I expect we will be dealing with thousands of these cases as we proceed."
TWU: Important Victory
"This is an important bill that we have been fighting for the past few sessions in Albany," Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano said. "I'm happy that we were finally able to bring it across the finish line for those transit families who will ultimately benefit from this victory."
"I am very proud of this legislation, which will allow grieving families to be able to seek financial justice for the loss of their loved one," wrote State Sen. James Sanders, one of the bill's prime sponsors.
The bill is named for Anthony Nigro, 57, who died in 2012, just five months after his retirement. Two years later, Judge Jay Leibowitz awarded his widow, Dorota Nigro, $773 per week, payable for the rest of her life, or until she remarries. The court also awarded $100,000 in retroactive payments back to the time of her husband's death, and close to $6,000 for funeral expenses.
"It is a landmark case, in the vein of other landmark cases like the [first] asbestos case and the first occupational-hearing-loss case," Robert Grey, one of Ms. Nigro's attorneys, said at the time of the award. "It's the first one that's always the hard one."
Knew What Was Killing Him
For Ms. Nigro, the bill signed into law by Ms. Hochul was the culmination of a multi-year campaign since she lost her husband to raise public awareness about how deadly chronic exposure to diesel fumes can be.
"When we made a visit to one of the oncologists, who had already received my husband's medical records, he just simply looked at me and told me to get a lawyer because my husband had cancer that was caused by the environment." she said during a phone interview. "And my husband was sitting next to me and looked at me and said 'Honey, don't you see—it is the diesel fuels.' "
She continued, "At that point I got angry and I was on a mission to fight his company, but my husband did not believe I was going to win. He told me I was going to get sick over it, and he told me not to fight it because he was 'just a number,' and that the MTA had a legal department with lawyers coming out of the woodwork."
"This caused the death of many of his friends and co-workers who died before him and those who kept dying after he died," she said. Ms. Nigro, who was still working as a flight attendant, embarked on her own investigation, which culminated in a book she co-wrote with Chris Moore entitled "Not Just a Number."
According to Safety & Health, the magazine of the National Safety Council, "Short-term exposure to high concentrations of diesel exhaust and diesel particulate matter can result in dizziness; headaches; and eye, nose and throat irritation, the [U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration] states. Prolonged exposure can increase a worker's risk of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, and lung cancer."
In 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer—part of the World Health Organization—classified diesel exhaust as a "known human carcinogen."
Ms. Nigro said that in researching her book, she was "amazed" to learn that despite the WHO's determination that diesel fumes caused lung cancer, "our government and our Environmental Protection Agency said it was just likely. I don't understand how scientists can spend 50 years researching diesel in connection with a person's life and they couldn't identify it as a carcinogen for humans."
'Filled With Blue Smoke'
Joseph Colangelo, president of the Local 246 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents city mechanics, said in a Nov. 8 phone interview that while he welcomed the legislation, he was concerned that there was just a one-year filing window.
"I am 40 years with Sanitation, and when I started out in 1981, when they were transitioning to diesel trucks, the garages would fill up with that blue smoke. I mean, imagine you get 18 trucks starting up," Mr. Colangelo said. "This was way before clean diesel, and we had people come in and check the ventilation, and one of our guys who came in to check it out and when he was asked how bad it was, said 'I wouldn't work here.' "
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