When looking for ways to reduce workers’ compensation claims and lost time (days away from work), most safety and risk management professionals look to the obvious: designing and re-designing the workplace to prevent injuries, injury prevention training, working within OSHA regulations, posting signs and reminders to work safely, addressing injuries as they occur and putting measures in place to prevent other injuries.
Yet, with all the prevention measures, lost time claims still occur and they are costly. Why?
What’s often overlooked is the impact that the injured employee’s supervisor has on the injury and claim. Do supervisors know that their response to the employee in pain can determine the length of the employee’s disability? In “theory,” of course they know it’s important to be nice, but in reality, is this what supervisors practice when their employees complain of discomfort, pain or have an injury? Does it matter?
Research shows that it does matter. A National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) Innovative Research Award-winning research study by Shaw, et al., “Supervisor Training to Optimize Response to Worker Injuries,” showed that just four hours of supervisor training on communication skills and respect of injured workers, along with ergonomic accommodations for injured workers reduced lost time claims by 47 percent. The study also showed an 18 percent reduction in existing claims and an 80 percent reduction in workers’ comp costs.
There are safety/risk management professionals who view this as soft science or psychosocial fluff, but can you really afford to ignore the impact of supervisor attitude on claims? As an ergonomist being called in to evaluate a worker, I first talk with the employee’s supervisor to get a feel for non-direct workplace factors: workplace culture, staff engagement, workflow, employee perception of work overload, supervisor openness, and preconceived impressions of the injured employee. Then I use this information to compare it to the employee’s perception of the workplace culture, and supervisor openness and responsiveness to the complaint of injury and pain.
Escalate claim, increase length of disability
Is there a ‘disconnect’ between the supervisor and employee perceptions on these issues? Most of the time there is. The supervisor feels there is an open door policy where employees are free to share any concerns and the supervisor will always have the best interests of the employee in mind.
In contrast, the employee shares that supervisors roll their eyes when the employee complains of discomfort or pain, don’t act upon the information, won’t order ergonomic accommodations, or there is no follow up by supervisors. An employee’s perception that a supervisor doesn’t take the employee’s concerns seriously will escalate a claim and increase the length of a disability.
Just four hours of training on how to effectively work with employees suffering a work-related injury can reduce claims by 40 percent. (Photo: Shutterstock)
In the study by Shaw, researchers looked at a four-hour training program for supervisors (Table 1) aimed at improving methods for communicating with injured workers and facilitating temporary job accommodations in response to musculoskeletal complaints. Researchers used videos with positive and negative models of supervisor behavior, went over recommendations for ergonomic work modifications and reviewed communication strategies.
Training session I:
10 minutes - Introductory remarks from management and workshop facilitators
10 minutes - Pre-seminar survey of disability attitudes and knowledge
10 minutes - Icebreaker activity: Brainstorm factors affecting disability
10 minutes - Rationale for improved supervisor response to injury
20 minutes - Responding effectively to health and safety concerns of workers
30 minutes - Understanding musculoskeletal pain and discomfort
30 minutes - Problem solving to provide ergonomic work modifications
Total 120 minutes
Training session II (several days later):
10 minutes - Review of Session I material, question/answer
20 minutes - Maintaining communication after injury
20 minutes - Reintegration and return to work
50 minutes - Case simulations and group presentations
10 minutes - Question/answer period
10 minutes - Post-seminar survey of disability attitudes and knowledge
Total 120 minutes
Results of this study reported “statistically significant improvements in supervisor’s confidence to communicate effectively with injured workers, suggest ergonomically-based job accommodations, and maintain a positive and supportive attitude with injured workers.” Shaw reported that in the seven months after the training program, the intervention group experienced 47 percent fewer new workers' compensation claims, while the control group reduction was only 19 percent.
A study showed that if an employee ‘expects’ to return to work and the clinician knows about the modified work availability, these factors can assist in reducing lost time days. (Photo: Shutterstock)
Modified duty and return-to-work programs
While modified duty and return-to-work programs are important to injury reduction, it’s even more important to make sure everyone in the organization (employees, injured workers, supervisors, clinicians) knows about these programs and supports them.
Another study by Shaw showed that if an employee ‘expects’ to return to work and the clinician knows about the modified work availability, these factors can assist in reducing lost time days. Take care to show the value of your modified duty and return-to-work program so it becomes enterprise-valued and an expected part of returning to work for everyone.
Communication, support, collaboration
Although it can be far easier to look at conventional solutions to address workers’ compensation claims and lost time drivers than it is to implement supervisor training, there is value in being nice.
Consider training your supervision team on how to communicate effectively with injured workers, how to provide and support ergonomically-based job accommodations, and the importance of being supportive, proactive and collaborative with injured workers.
Kathy Espinoza (firstname.lastname@example.org), MBA, MS, CPE, CIE, is a board-certified professional ergonomist and assistant vice president, ergonomics and safety, for Keenan, a full-service insurance brokerage and consulting firm. She has worked with the firm for 14 years providing workstation assessments, solutions and employee training and has published 60 articles in the field of ergonomics, safety and workplace issues.