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Action heats up on asbestos compensation bill

A bill to outlaw lawsuits over asbestos injuries and set up a so-called "no-fault" compensation system for people who have been sickened or killed by exposure to asbestos is on a fast track in Congress. The bill was introduced on Sunday, January 9, just two days in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill, reports the New York Committee on Occupational Safety and Health.

Senate leaders promise to bring the legislation to the Senate floor in less than three weeks, according to NYCOSH.

"Over the last 27 years Congress has considered, and rejected, ten similar bills, said NYCOSH Executive Director Joel Shufro. "The only reason for the Republicans' unseemly haste is their desire to ram it through both houses before people realize how awful it is and get organized to stop it."

Critics of the bill include organizations of asbestos victims, labor unions, and practitioners in the fields of occupational medicine, public health and the law.

They complain the trust fund would pay compensation to people who have been injured by asbestos according to a schedule of payments that are substantially lower than those that injured workers and others now win in court.

The bill includes a "completely unscientific, definition of asbestos disease," according to Arthur Frank, the Chair of the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health in Drexel University's School of Public Health. "For example," says Frank, "a person with lung cancer caused by exposure to asbestos would not be eligible for compensation unless he or she could prove several years' regular exposure to asbestos. But we know from experience with asbestos workers that just one month of exposure to asbestos doubles the risk of developing lung cancer."

The latest version of the bill includes some improvements, according to NYCOSH, including a complete ban on asbestos containing products, a provision that might protect the rights of victims whose claim are not paid before the fund runs out of money, and a limited right to appeal decisions of the fund in federal court.

Despite the fast track that the bill is on, its chances of passage are uncertain. In recent weeks some major companies with large asbestos-injury liabilities have said that the bill requires them to pay too much money into the trust fund and it fails to put an absolute and permanent stop to any future litigation over asbestos injuries. Some large insurance companies have raised similar objections.

In prepared testimony for the January 11 Judiciary Committee hearing, AFL-CIO Safety and Health Director Peg Seminario said that the federation is "deeply disturbed and dismayed by letters and statements from some insurance and business groups opposing current efforts to reach a compromise on asbestos trust fund legislation."

The text of the draft asbestos compensation legislation is posted at http://www.nycosh.org/workplace_hazards/2005SenateAsbestosDraft.pdf.

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