By Ken Wells
At the end of his shift, Tom, an experienced welder, is carrying his gear back to the truck when he steps in a pothole in the parking lot. He goes down hard on his elbow. When he tries to stand up, he has a burning pain in his knee.
Is this a recordable incident? Should Tom go to the emergency room? Will he need workers' compensation? Will he be working in 6 months?
The steps a company takes in the next 30 minutes may determine the answer to each question. Companies that work aggressively to provide the right treatment at the right time have lower injury costs, fewer recordables and workers' compensation cases, and more engaged, successful employees.
Here’s what you should do to help Tom from the start.
- Reassure him. The best medicine for Tom right now is knowing the company will take care of him. If the first thing he hears from a supervisor is what he did wrong, how the injury is hurting production or how it will cost the crew safety bonuses, the company is sending the wrong message. A Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety study found that simply training supervisors on the right way to engage an injured worker cut new workers' compensation claims by 47%.
- Have a plan for assessing and managing injuries. The emergency room is not a plan. Excellus BlueCross BlueShield of New York estimates that 90% of ER visits may be unnecessary. A trip to the ER also almost guarantees that the case must be classified as an OSHA recordable Injury. Finally, If Tom spends several hours waiting in a crowded ER, you haven’t helped him, physically or mentally.
- Engage Tom in his own recovery. Help find light-duty jobs and manage cases so that employees follow treatment plans. When Workers Compensation Research Institute surveyed workers 3 years after an injury, it found that the workers who were afraid for their jobs were twice as likely to be unemployed and five times more likely to have lower earnings.
Smart companies invest in prevention through their safety programs, but even many smart companies fall short when it comes to mitigating the harm when an incident occurs.
Here are five parts of an effective injury management system:
- Train supervisors to respond to injuries.
- Utilize a service that puts the worker on the phone with a medical professional immediately after the injury occurs.
- Research and build relationships with nearby occupational clinics so that you know their capabilities.
- Develop a return-to-work plan and make sure job descriptions accurately describe physical requirements.
- Engage workers in their own recoveries by working with them to make sure they follow post-injury treatment plans.
Prevention is critical, but the way a company responds and communicates with an employee after an injury occurs is key to worker engagement and the costs of care.
Ken Wells is the founder of Lifeline Strategies, a safety and occupational medicine consulting firm near Houston, TX. He specializes in helping clients take a systems approach to managing their risk, safety and occupational medicine programs.