Injury management Featured

10:05am EDT July 22, 2002

When an employee is injured on the job, the events immediately following can be confusing and worrisome. How bad is the person hurt? What paperwork needs to be filed? Who will do the work of the person who is injured?

At a small company, the loss of one person can have severe consequences on a business, and a prolonged workers' compensation claim can be disastrous. But as in many business problems, careful management can help avoid serious consequences.

A proven way to avoid long-term absences from an injured employee is enabling him to return as soon as possible.

"The company has to be able to be flexible to design jobs that may or may not be equal to what they were doing, but is designed for them," says Tom Basil, national sales director for the Trans-General Group, a Pittsburgh-based group insurance and employee- benefits consulting company. "It's important to have the mentality of being at work rather than sitting at home watching TV."

There may be some resistance from other employees, especially in a union environment, who don't like to see someone doing something he shouldn't be there for.

"What they don't understand is [that] it's the mentality that is important," notes Basil. "They are back at work."

When a worker is out for as little as two to three weeks, he or she only has a 50 percent chance of coming back to the job. People tend to get lulled into a lifestyle of watching television and doing what they want to do, and don't feel compelled to return to work.

"What you need to build are communication between the employer, the employee, the insurance company and the physician, before the workers' compensation plan is needed," says Basil. "You need an educational process where everyone knows what to do immediately.

"It's never too late to design a return-to-work program, but the companies that are proactive have better results than those who put it together on the fly."

If employees know the company is proactive in monitoring workers compensation claims and getting people back to work, they will be less likely to try to take advantage of the workers' compensation system.

Communicating with the physician can be crucial. Caring for the employee's health is very important, but you also need to know when the employee can perform basic tasks.

"Ask them to help you design a return-to-work program for that employee," says Basil. "For example, maybe originally they were required to lift 100 pounds of material. Ask the doctor to let you know when the employee can lift 10 pounds, so you know what tasks may be appropriate."

Don't forget the employee during the process. It's just as important to communicate with him as the doctor.

"From Day 1 when they go out, communicate with them a lot," advises Basil. "Tell them how valuable they are to the process. They should feel wanted, otherwise they may sit at home wondering if someone is going to take their job. They end up luring themselves into a long workers' compensation claim. An unhappy employee doesn't want to come back.

"The employee needs to know you are involved in helping them with rehabilitation-that it's a productivity function, not an insurance function, and it matters to you."

Creating a level of expectation within the employees (before potential accidents) helps ensure success. They know when they get hurt that they are expected to get back to work.