An alarming number of studies indicate that losing a job — including due to workplace injuries or illnesses — can lead to a host of serious physical and mental illnesses. One such study by researchers at the University of Western Ontario found that depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental health problems often went hand-in-hand with being out of work.
The majority of safety professionals do an excellent job by keeping their eye on the prize, in this case focusing on reducing OSHA recordables. And why not? Fail to do so, and suddenly a company is shut out from bidding on “the next big job,” all because not enough attention was paid to passing inspections, making sure machine guards are in their proper place and ensuring all equipment is in good operating condition.
But is the same amount of attention being put into what happens if an employee is injured, in spite of all the precautions being in place? Other than a missing body on the shop floor, are safety professionals aware of the long-term ramifications if the injured worker goes into the workers' compensation system and suddenly finds himself — through no fault of his own — out of work because he received inadequate medical treatment or because a strong return-to-work program was nowhere to be found?
Many safety professionals conduct a thorough post-accident analysis to make sure the accident doesn't happen again. Unfortunately, they often put less time into making sure the injured worker is receiving the proper medical treatment and is enrolled in a strong return-to-work program, with the ultimate goal to get the employee back on the job.
I am reminded of a gentleman who was injured on the job. He couldn't return to work because he was in too much pain, which prompted the employer to invoke the Family Medical Leave Act. Twelve weeks later, the injured worker realizes his job is gone and he's out of work, leading him to ask himself, “What just happened?”
What happened was nobody followed up with the post-accident investigation to make sure he was receiving the proper medical treatment and that a strong return-to-work program was in place. Nobody took the time and effort to ask if it was medically appropriate for him to return to work. Nor did they realize that if he can't return to work, or finds himself swallowed up in the workers' comp system, bad things can happen. A virtual checklist of social ills await, explains William R. Avison, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Western Ontario, who states, “Job loss seems to result in a serious erosion in people's sense of control and self-esteem.”
Safety professionals need to broaden their scope and understand that as much time and effort needs to be put into what happens after the accident occurs as they do trying to prevent the accident from occurring. And if the accident does occur, the same stringent effort is required for all parties to get the injured employee back to work as soon as possible. This includes focusing on proper medical treatment, a reasonable length of recovery and an effective return-to-work program.
Keeping a close watch on the sterile metrics that make up the primary safety goals is important, but it should be no less important than what can happen to an injured worker suddenly faced with being out of work, the impact on family, on society and on him or her. Studies indicate that every time the unemployment rate increases 1 percent, there are 6,000 more recorded deaths each year.
Bad things happen when workers are unable to return to work after an injury. But as long as safety professionals make it their job to deal effectively with the post-accident scenario, and do it diligently and with the good attention to detail they have illustrated in preventing accidents, then not only is the injured party better served, but so is society.
Frank Pennachio, CWCA, is co-founder and director of learning at the Institute of WorkComp Professionals in Asheville, N.C., the largest network of workers' compensation professionals in the nation. He also is president of a workers' comp insurance agency, and a licensee and trainer for Injury Management Partners. Contact him at [email protected].