A court in Pennsylvania recently decided that a widow who alleged that her husband was worked to death should receive death benefits. Her husband, Robert Dietz, who was 48 years old, was completing a 14-hour shift when he suffered a heart attack and died on November 7, 2007. The three-judge panel decision made by the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court was a reversal of the decision made by a workers’ compensation appeal board.
Dietz worked in field maintenance for the Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority. The work was physically demanding, and involved fixing water mains and digging up tree roots from the sewer system. The job often required the use of a jackhammer. He had worked in that role for 20 years. According to the testimony given by his widow, Judith Dietz, he frequently worked more than 40 hours per week, and was constantly on call.
Dr. Walter Schwartz, who testified on behalf of the water department, contended that Dietz’s death was the result of pre-existing health conditions, including a family history of coronary disease, his high level of cholesterol and blood fats, his peripheral artery disease, his smoking habit, and his weight. He further stated that due to these health factors, Dietz could have died at any time. According to court documents, Dietz was 6 feet 2 inches tall, and weighed 200 to 210 pounds. Judith Dietz testified that during their marriage of 13 years, he smoked a pack of cigarettes on a daily basis.
However, cardiac specialist Dr. Larry Wolk, who testified on behalf of Dietz’s family, stated that his long work day performing physically taxing labor caused his death. Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt placed more emphasis on Dr. Wolk’s testimony, and wrote that the staggering circumstantial evidence indicates that the strain from Dietz’s usual work duties caused his heart attack.
Mrs. Dietz and her minor child are seeking the standard death benefit, which consists of 60 percent of compensation plus $3,000 to be applied to burial expenses. Whether Dietz’s heart attack was caused by his job was significant because a connection between an employee’s work and his death must be made in order for the surviving spouse to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. An attorney for the Dietz family said that the employer has 30 days to appeal the decision.
The Employer’s Responsibilities
I think the Pennsylvania Court ruled correctly when it sided with Mrs. Dietz, and awarded her and her minor child the death benefit. Although Dietz had pre-existing health conditions that could eventually have led to a heart attack, the attack he suffered occurred after a long day of physically laborious work that he had been performing for 20 years. The extreme stress and strain associated with such work took its toll on Dietz and caused him to collapse and die.
In an effort to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future, perhaps the employer could shorten the shifts, especially when the work entails such strenuous labor. The health and safety of any company’s employees should take precedence over the work itself. Employers should ensure that its employees are not overworked, especially when there are pre-existing health conditions. Just because the employee does not voice any complaints about being overworked doesn’t mean that he isn’t. An employee is unlikely to complain because he or she may feel that to do so would result in termination. Therefore, it is the employer’s responsibility to protect the health and safety of its workers.
Authored by Roxanne Minott, LegalMatch Legal Writer and Attorney at Law