People who suffer on-the-job back injuries, particularly women and racial minorities, encounter hostility or indifference when they return to work, according to researchers.
Injured workers "face an array of employer responses ranging from ''welcome back'' to ''you''re out,''" said Drs. Lee Strunin and Leslie Boden of Boston University School of Public Health in Massachusetts.
Their report is published in the October issue of the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.
The researchers interviewed 204 workers in Florida who had developed back injuries at work in 1990
The study participants included whites, blacks and Hispanics in three age groups. The workers were questioned about their attempts to return to work after their injuries.
According to the report, employers responded to their returning workers in one of three ways.
In the "welcome back" path, "the employer wants the worker to return and provides a work environment that is flexible to the injured worker."
About half of the workers interviewed reported that they were treated this way, and those workers felt valued as employees.
But "half of the workers in this study experienced employer indifference or hostility" when returning to work after a back injury.
Some employers gave returning employees a "business as usual" response, in which "the employer makes no adjustments and expects the worker to do the job as if nothing had happened."
Workers that faced this kind of return felt undervalued, and perceived their employers as "not caring whether they stay or leave."
Yet other workers were greeted with the "you''re out" approach. These workers, the researchers noted, faced what they see as active hostility. Many workers are terminated, believing that "the employer was looking for an excuse to fire them."
Strunin and Boden reported that "a substantial number of minority and female workers believe that they suffer discrimination after they are injured."
The investigators found that white males were the most likely to be given light duty work and the most likely to return to their pre-injury jobs.
Black and Hispanic workers were more likely to be employed in jobs that they could not perform after back injuries, and so tended to bear greater economic losses than white workers.
Women were more likely than men to remain unemployed five years after being injured, likewise experiencing a greater financial impact.
"Injured racial and/or ethnic minorities and women may experience a double dose of discrimination: first in the employment process and then after they become injured," concluded the researchers.
by Virginia Sutcliffe