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MARINA DEL REY, Calif. -- How do you do what's really best for an injured worker?

Panelists discussing that issue at Business Insurance's Sixth Annual Workers Compensation Conference in Marina del Rey, Calif., late last month say that the answer often revolves around being treated with respect.

"Do we really focus enough on the injured worker?" asked Stephen M. Holcomb, senior vp-specialty risk services for Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. in Hartford, Conn. Mr. Holcomb, who served as moderator for the session, asked how many audience members had ever personally filed a workers comp claim. Only a handful had.

Mr. Holcomb said that maintaining employer/employee contact is critical.

Even such simple things as getting a card or a call from a supervisor helps smooth the experience. Making modified work a positive, rather than demeaning, experience also helps, recommended Mr. Holcomb.

Injured workers have to be brought back to "real work, not counting paper clips," agreed Maria A. Bayne, president of Bayne Consulting Group Ltd. in San Diego.

There shouldn't be any surprises, either. "You need to address workers comp" procedures up front, at the time of hiring, said Ms. Bayne.

During the early 1990s, American Airlines experienced a groundswell of complaints from employees about the treatment they received during the workers comp process, said Jerry L. Thomas, managing director-workers compensation for the airline, which is based at the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Workers comp costs skyrocketed during the same period and, as the economy moved into overdrive, American Airlines began having difficulty recruiting new workers, he said.

Mr. Thomas said the company met with employees and found that they were interested in more than money -- they also were interested in how they were treated by the company.

As a result, American Airlines switched TPAs and hired more than 20 new employees who serve as "injury counselors."

"Their job is to handhold the employee through the process," said Mr. Thomas. The aim is to create an atmosphere of "mutual respect," he said.

The changes appear to be working: While the number of reported claims has increased, the amount of time lost to workplace accidents has fallen, he said.

Lou Constantino, workers compensation manager for the University of California at Los Angeles, said that the university's use of doctors from its renowned medical center has eased the workers comp process. He said that employees seem to like using the Medical Center because it is so highly regarded nationally. He added that, despite the tie between the medical provider and the employer, no employee privacy issues have arisen.