This is part 2 in a 3-part series. For part 1, click here.
Step 3 – Develop an injury action plan
Many employers think that when an injury occurs responsibility for getting the injured worker back to work shifts to the claim adjuster. Nothing could be further from the truth, and it is this basic misunderstanding that causes many claims to deteriorate with oftentimes tragic consequences for both worker and employer.
The claims adjuster’s job is to determine compensability, coordinate benefits, follow the law and work within it and the workers’ compensation insurance contract to resolve the claim satisfactorily. And while adjusters play a vital role in the process, they can never be your human resource director.
Misunderstanding the role of the adjuster creates an atmosphere in which injured employees are left to drift, groping their way through a quagmire of medical services, uncertain benefits and a cloudy future. In fact, a truism in workers’ compensation is, “When a claim goes south, costs go north.” As the employer, you need to structure a clearly defined path from the moment of injury through early return to work back to full employment. What you do or don’t do in the first few hours after an injury has a significant impact on your ultimate costs.
Employers need to create a turnkey action plan – a clear set of policies, procedures and expectations with supporting tools and documentation. The plan must include a way to stay in continuous contact with injured workers throughout the recovery process, keeping employees connected to your organization and motivated to return to work.
Step 4 – Establish a relationship with a high-quality medical provider
A close relationship with medical providers of exceptional quality who understand work-related injuries is essential to managing costs. The pivotal emphasis should be on quality, not price. This sounds paradoxical in these times of higher and higher medical costs, where medical treatment now accounts for nearly 60% of workers’ compensation loss costs. However, ample research shows that doctors who specialize in occupational medicine with a sports medicine approach and who follow ACOEM (American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine) guidelines, consistently provide injured workers with high-quality treatment while shepherding them back to the workplace in a compassionate and caring manner. Board-certified occupational medicine physicians know that a worker should remain out of work no longer than is medically necessary. This leads to an active recovery and lower costs.
Take the time to shop for a provider who offers the highest-quality care with an active sports medicine philosophy. Look for physicians who will take the time to understand your needs, perhaps through actual work site visits. Once you have identified a potential provider, develop a written agreement that sets explicit procedures for handling workplace injuries. Be sure that the provider is willing to identify specific restrictions resulting from injuries and work with you to accommodate appropriate modified duty placements.
Now, admittedly, this approach can be difficult in the 21st century workers’ compensation medical environment. Large medical management companies have enrolled more physicians than there are entries in the New York City telephone directory and have wrung out of each a discounted rate for service. This arrangement might be good for the medical management companies, but not necessarily for you. In workers’ compensation, like in most everything else, you get what you pay for. So, our suggestion is that you should be prepared to negotiate higher payment for the good service you expect. It is well worth it in the long run.
As with any valued vendor, you should provide positive feedback to physicians who take the time to care well for your injured workers. However, while everyone appreciates praise for a job well done, you should always remember that a physician’s first responsibility is to the patient. The more that the physician understands that you have the same outlook, the more the physician will trust you and work with you to accommodate the injured workers needs appropriately.
Step 5 - Stress early return to work
Time away from work can be frightening and debilitating for injured workers. Their physical, emotional, and financial well-being are often in turmoil. They are worried about their job and how they will pay their bills, particularly so in today's economic climate. They often begin to think of themselves as “disabled.” The longer they are out of work, the harder it becomes to get them back into the work routine. Consequently, it is crucial to speed recovery through the use of modified duty, one of the most important tools an employer has to reduce loss time and costs.
Modified duty is a bridge back to full duty, keeping workers active and part of the team. Instruct your medical provider to focus on what the employee cannot do while injured, clearly delineating work restrictions.
For a moment, put yourself in the skin of the injured worker and imagine you are talking with your doctor about your injury. Would you want the doctor to list for you the potentially countless physical tasks you could actually still do while injured? Or, would you want the doctor to tell you the realistically few things you should not do? The latter approach is the one doctors prefer, too.
Once you have the medical restrictions, work with your supervisors to develop progressive, short-term transitional jobs and tasks. Most important, make sure that employees and supervisors carefully follow the physician’s restrictions: The goal is to speed recovery, not aggravate the condition and make things worse. As medical treatment continues and your medical provider gradually lifts restrictions, increase job demands to ease the employee back to his or her original job.