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ATLANTA-A new survey of workers injured on the job affirms prevailing notions that employers with return-to-work programs and that maintain contact with employees after they're hurt have the best chance of holding down workers compensation costs.

The good news for employers is that they hold the answers to many of the factors that drive up workers comp costs, according to Maddy Bowling, a senior vp and general manager of managed care based in Itasca, Ill., for Intracorp.

"The key is in the employer's hands," said Ms. Bowling, whose company recently surveyed 500 injured workers on their experiences with their employers while they were out of work.

Linda Cartwright, manager of occupational health services for Fleming Cos. Inc., an Oklahoma City-based grocery wholesaler and retailer, noted supervisors or co-workers frequently do not contact injured workers, leading to feelings of isolation and the increased likelihood that injured workers will contact lawyers and that the employer's workers comp claims will rise.

Ms. Cartwright was moderator and a speaker on a panel discussing the Injured Worker Experience at the annual conference of the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. last week in Atlanta.

Her observations were borne out by the findings of the survey conducted for Philadelphia-based Intracorp by the Gallup Organization. Ms. Bowling, another panelist, discussed the survey. The recent survey gave the company an opportunity to compare current trends with those revealed in a similar study conducted in 1994.

The 500 injured workers in the current study were drawn from a group of 10 states selected to reflect a mix of workers comp climates. The group in this year's survey averaged 7.3 years with their current employers.

Of those surveyed, 69% reported their injuries caused them to miss time from work, and 20% said they had contacted a lawyer.

"The top injuries were backs, broken bones, cuts and carpal tunnel," Ms. Bowling said. "The top illnesses were stress and allergies."

Ms. Bowling noted that the time lost due to illnesses among those surveyed was longer than that of workers out because of injuries. "That's definitely an area that needs our attention," she said.

Asked about their top concerns after their injuries, 37% of those participating in the Intracorp survey were most concerned about medical issues, 24% about financial matters and 21% about missing work.

"What's interesting about that is those three things are (employers') top concerns also," Ms. Bowling said.

The survey also showed the injured workers were more satisfied with their medical care than with the way their employers treated them. Of those surveyed, 71% indicated they were satisfied with the care they received, 77% were satisfied with the doctors they saw, and 58% were satisfied with the way their employers dealt with them after their injuries.

Despite their satisfaction with their medical care, the numbers still reveal cause for concern with the quality of occupational health care injured workers are receiving, Ms. Bowling said, noting those numbers are lower than the 90% of the group that indicated satisfaction with the group health plan their employers offered.

Satisfaction with employers was even lower for workers off the job due to illness rather than injury, falling to 48% for that group. That's a reflection of the importance of trust in the employer/employee relationship, Ms. Bowling said. One in five of the workers surveyed said the employer did not believe them about their injury or illness.

"It appears employers have to see it to believe it," she said. But, "opportunity is knocking," because the way they treat injured workers is something that employers can do something about, Ms. Bowling said.

"Contact with the employee post-injury was highly correlated to satisfaction with the employer," Ms. Bowling said. "Many employers are forgetting the human angle to workers comp cases."

She noted that communication with employees about workers comp before they're ever injured is critical and that employees who understand the system and are confident they will be treated fairly by their employers return to work more quickly and are less likely to contact attorneys, a move that inevitably drives up comp costs.

This year's survey showed significant progress in employers' implementation of workers comp cost control efforts, with 41% of the injured workers surveyed reporting their employers had return-to-work plans in place, compared with 33% in the 1994 study. Fifty-two percent reported their companies engaged in injury prevention and training, compared with 43% in the earlier survey.

Despite that progress, however, "there's still opportunity," Ms. Bowling said. "We need to create effective return-to-work programs where we don't have them, and where we do have them, we need to communicate them," she said.

And 17% of those surveyed said their medical providers were unable to answer questions on how their injury or illness might affect their ability to return to work. "Injured workers want to go to physicians who understand their specific occupational injury and the implications for their return to work," Ms. Bowling said.

Overall, employers need to treat injured workers like customers, Ms. Bowling said. "There's no more important stakeholder in the process," she said, adding that no one has more control over the injury's ultimate costs to the employer than the injured worker.

Employers have "opportunities" to communicate with employees about workers comp and provide supervisors better workers comp information, Ms. Bowling said.

"Supervisors are your front line of communication with your employees," she said.

Ms. Cartwright noted that much of her company's effort to fine-tune its manner of dealing with injured workers has focused on supervisor training, in addition to communication with workers through such methods as payroll stuffers, worksite posters, physician panel postings, point-of-injury information and a video shown to new hires.

Employers also need to "reach out and extend good will to injured workers," emphasize prompt treatment, channel injured workers to knowledgeable health care providers and monitor injured workers' satisfaction with their treatment, Ms. Bowling said.

Betty Nelson, manager of public relations for Intracorp, coordinated the session.