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Teen Worker Injuries

At age 42, Frank Gravina didn’t have any of the known risk factors for bladder cancer, such as cigarette smoking or a family history of the disease. Yet, he was diagnosed with such an aggressive form of bladder cancer that he was required to have his bladder removed.

 

Bladder cancer at age 42 is extremely rare, unless the person had an occupational or environmental exposure. The expected rate of bladder cancer in the United States for a white male at age 42 is 5.7 cases for every 100,000 men, as compared to 317.2 cases for every 100,000 white males at age 85 and older. Clearly, something had happened to Mr. Gravina to have caused his cancer. My job was to figure out what it was.

 

Our investigation focused on the period of 1976 to 1978, when Mr. Gravina was 16 and 17 years old and in his junior and senior years of high school at the private Garden State Academy in Tranquility, New Jersey. As part of its academic program, the Garden State Academy supplied students to work at Harris Pine Mills Corporation, also located in Tranquility, which made outdoor redwood furniture.

 

During the 18 months of these two academic years, Mr. Gravina worked at Harris Pine Mills for four hours per day, five days per week. His job assignment was to take pieces of redwood furniture, dip them into a large vat filled with a liquid brownish-red stain, and then stack the pieces of wood to dry.

 

New Jersey’s Workers’ Compensation Law specifically allows minors to file legal actions against their employers for damages, instead of limiting the minor to a workers’ compensation claim against his employer, which is the case for workers 18 years and older. The statute states: "Nothing in this chapter contained shall deprive an infant under the age of 18 years of the right or rights now existing to recover damages in a common law or other appropriate action or proceeding for injuries received by reason of the negligence of his or her master." N.J.S.A. 34:15-10.

 

No gloves or other personal protective equipment were provided to Mr. Gravina. The stain came into direct contact with his skin. In a typical shift, the stain would "slosh and spill" all over Mr. Gravina’s arms and hands, splash onto his clothes, hair, and scalp, get into his shoes, and stain his socks and feet. There was no ventilation in the area of the staining tank and no respirators were provided. Mr. Gravina inhaled the fumes and vapor coming from the stain. Mr. Gravina was never advised that the stain could cause cancer or that any precautions should be taken.

 

New Jersey’s Child Labor Law provides that "[n]o minor under 18 years of age shall be employed, permitted or suffered to work in, about or in connection with...[t]he handling of dangerous or poisonous acids or dyes, injurious quantities of toxic or noxious dust, gases, vapors or fumes." N.J.S.A. 34:2-21.17.

 

I had Mr. Gravina’s case reviewed by Steven Markowitz, MD, a physician who is board-certified in occupational and environmental medicine and in internal medicine. He is both the Director of, and a Professor at, the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, an environmental and occupational health research institute of the City University of New York. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Community and Preventive Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

 

In order to evaluate this case, Dr. Markowitz developed a list of all possible known risk factors for bladder cancer that could apply to Frank Gravina. He examined Mr. Gravina’s familial, social, medical, and occupational background and reviewed the medical and scientific literature on the known risk factors for developing bladder cancer.

 

Dr. Markowitz reviewed each risk factor and was able to rule out each one as potential cause of Frank Gravina’s bladder cancer, except for his work as a wood stainer at Harris Pine Mills.

 

Dr. Markowitz determined: (a) that woodworkers and painters, the two occupations most likely to use wood stains in their work, have consistently elevated rates of bladder cancer, and (b) that in the late 1970's some wood stains contained benzidine and benzidine-based dyes, both of which are recognized, bladder cancer-causing chemicals.

Using an accepted scientific methodology, Dr. Markowitz demonstrated that, but for the conditions of Frank Gravina’s work as a wood stainer at Harris Pine Mills, he had no other risk factors for his development of bladder cancer. Based on these facts, Dr. Markowitz concluded that Frank Gravina’s work at Harris Pine Mills was "a substantial contributing factor" in his development of bladder cancer.

But by 2002, Harris Pine Mills no longer existed. It had gone into bankruptcy and had been dissolved as a corporation. No records were available. The identity of the wood stain and its manufacturer were unknown.

Based on the lack of evidence identifying: (a) the manufacturer of the stains and (b) the exact components of the actual stains to which Frank Gravina was exposed, the insurance company for Harris Pine Mills moved for summary judgment to dismiss the case. The motion was granted.

We took the case up to the Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey. On July 20, 2006, the summary judgment was reversed. The Appellate Division held that the trial court erred when it failed to permit Frank Gravina "to prove that his bladder cancer arose out of and in the course of his employment, and as the natural and proximate cause of the employer's negligent failure to maintain a safe workplace."

The case then went to trial against National Union Fire Insurance Company of Pittsburgh, PA, which had provided employers’ liability insurance coverage for Harris Pine Mills. All of the evidence pointed to the inescapable conclusion that Frank Gravina was exposed to a human bladder carcinogen while he worked at Harris Pine Mills. On the fifth day of trial, just before closing statements, National Union settled the case for $925,000.

 

Teenage Co-Workers of Frank Gravina at Harris Pine Mills in 1978

New Jersey's Child Labor Law prohibits children, under 18 years,  from working with noxious dusts.