Wednesday, March 18, 2015

OSHA and pro sports—are concussions the NFL’s black lung?

San Francisco line backer Chris Borland rocked the sports world yesterday by announcing his retirement from pro football at the age of 24 after playing only one NFL season. His reason: concerns about the long-term impact of football-related head trauma.

The news comes even as the NFL has implemented league-wide rules in an attempt to minimize head injuries. And, those rules seem to be working. During the 2014 season, the rate of concussion fell 25 percent as compared to the 2013 season, and are down 36 percent since 2012. Yet, NFL players still suffer 0.43 concussions per game. And, while the rate of concussions has fallen, the rate of injuries overall continues to rise, up 17 percent from 2013 to 2014, with 265 players placed on injured reserve during the 2014 regular season. This means that during the NFL’s regular season, more than one player per game suffered a season-ending injury.

Think about those numbers? If you ran a manufacturing plant, would you be content with a “Days Without Injury” calendar that was forever set on “zero?” And, more to the point, wouldn’t you expect OSHA eventually to take interest in your extraordinarily unsafe workplace?

All the way back in 2008, OSHA opined that it has the jurisdiction to regulate professional sports if the athletes are employees. There is no doubt that NFL players, protected by a labor union and parties to a collective bargaining agreement with the NFL, are employees, subject to OSHA’s regulatory jurisdiction.

OHSA lacks a standard on pro sports, but it does have its general duty clause. It provides, “Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” OSHA used this general duty clause to cite Sea World of Florida following  a trainer’s death from a killer-whale attack. If the general duty clause can reach the entertainment industry, why can’t it also reach professional sports?

While OSHA likely can reach pro sports, the bigger question is will it? On its own accord, history shows that the answer is no. But, what if the NFLPA believes that the NFL isn’t doing all it could to reduce the risk of head injuries and files a complaint with OSHA? What then? Or, what if, god forbid, a player dies on the field during a game? Surely, OSHA would then investigate. For years, the government and the coal industry ignored the risk of black lung disease, even as more and more miners fell ill. The NFL has the power to regulate head injuries. It better be sure it is doing everything it can, or it is taking a huge risk that OSHA will step in and regulate in the league’s place.

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