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What Do You Think: May Wife of W. Va. Coke-Oven Worker Obtain Benefits for Husband’s Death?

11 Oct, 2023 Chris Parker

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Follansbee, WV ( – When an employee dies at work with no witnesses, it can become challenging to determine whether his death was work-related. But as one case shows, sometimes the outcome is dictated by both medical evidence and common sense—if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it probably is.

On his second day of work, a “coke side bench hand” for a steel manufacturer was tending the coke oven. He had to clean the doors of the coke oven regularly, and, on the day in question, had cleaned them 15 times.

The room where the employee worked was very hot. On top of that, he was required to wear heavy protective clothing and equipment.

On that day, he was found unresponsive and not breathing. According to the ambulance service, when they arrived, it was too hot (120 degrees) in the room to treat him. So, they moved his body to a different area to perform emergency life-saving activities—which failed save his life.

By the time the employee reached the hospital, about 45 minutes had passed since he was found. His body was extremely hot to the touch. He had a body temperature of 101.2 degrees. He had second and third degree burns on his back from where he had landed on top of some coke. He also had suffered cardiac arrest and sustained hematoma and superficial head laceration.

After no response to treatment, he was pronounced dead. The diagnosis was listed as hyperthermia on the death certificate.

Doctors in the case disagreed on the cause of death. Most said he died of a heart attack, but that hyperthermia was a significant contributing factor. One doctor believed the worker died of heart failure. Thus, he must have died standing, according to that doctor; if he had died after he fell, the doctor reasoned, the worker would have moved once he landed on the extraordinarily hot coke.
OSHA evaluated the workspace and determined that employees worked alone and were not monitored for dehydration and heat exhaustion.

Evidence showed that the worker engaged in gardening and other hobbies, which indicated he was in good enough shape for the job. He had some signs of heart disease, but they were moderate.

The claims administrator denied the spouse’s claim for death benefits, but the workers’ compensation board reversed.

To obtain worker’s compensation death benefits in West Virginia, a spouse must show that the death was causally related to work.

Could the steel worker’s spouse collect death benefits?
A. No. At the hospital, the worker’s body was only 101.2 degrees—not that far above normal—which suggested it was not hyperthermia that killed him, but his existing heart condition.
B. Yes. Aside from the death certificate, most of the medical opinions and the setting in which he died indicated he most likely died, at least in part, of hyperthermia.

If you chose B you sided with the court in AK Steel Corp. v. Stiles, No. 21-0747 (W. Va. 09/14/23), which found the claim compensable. The court pointed out that the employee passed away on his second day of work while wearing multiple layers of clothing in an area that was so hot that paramedics had to move his body before they could treat him.

Most of the evidence indicated that excessive heat exposure materially contributed to the death. “Though there is a disagreement among physicians regarding the immediate cause of death, all but [one doctor] agreed that excessive heat exposure significantly contributed to [his] death,” the court wrote.

The court also noted the OSHA report stating that workers weren’t being checked for heat exhaustion or dehydration.

Finally, the court pointed out that the worker’s temperature at the hospital was measured at least forty-five minutes after treatment and possibly hours after his collapse. Therefore, his temperature at the time of his collapse was likely much higher than 101/2 degrees.

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