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SAN ANTONIO — Employers must proactively engage in returning their employees to work, including right at the beginning of an injury, by having supervisors accompany injured employees to the hospital or treatment clinics.
There are numerous obstacles to returning employees to work, including rigid company policies and union contracts that prohibit employees from being offered alternate-duty work, Perry Hawkins, corporate director – environmental, health and safety and risk management for Circor International Inc. in Spartanburg, South Carolina, told attendees of the American Society of Safety Professionals’ annual conference in San Antonio on Monday.
But company policies should not only allow, but mandate, supervisors to accompany injured employees to the clinic or hospital, he said.
While there may be a perception that employer access to health information would be banned under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, that does not apply in the workers compensation context in the United States, although employers must be careful to only access information related to the workplace injury and no other protected health information, he said.
“For so many people, that is a dirty word — interacting with the treating physician,” he said. “But you can do so.”
Even employers with employees in European Union jurisdictions should mandate supervisors accompany injured workers on medical visits — despite stricter privacy rules — because employees are more likely to voluntarily share such information, he added.
When supervisors accompany injured workers on such visits, they show that the employer cares about their workers and encourages them to open up about their treatments such as whether the doctor prescribed certain drugs such as Vicodin and the dosage, Mr. Hawkins said.
“They’ll tell you everything you need to know,” he said. “You start to have these conversations with them just because you’re there.”
Supervisors can also ask physicians direct questions that may impact treatment and the length of the claim, he said. For example, if the treating physician prescribes Vicodin, the supervisor can ask if there are viable over-the-counter alternatives. Of if the physician recommends restricted work, the supervisor can ask if the employee can be released to work if the employer has alternate work available that meets the employee’s job description and does not place the employee at risk.
Another benefit of requiring supervisors to accompany injured workers is that the supervisor quickly understands the experience of spending hours at a treating clinic and the “pain” of the process and becomes much more proactive in forcing employees to use safety glasses and other personal protective equipment because they don’t want to have to undergo that experience again.
The injured employee’s relationship with the supervisor is crucial to returning the employee to work, he said.
“If the employee doesn’t get along with the supervisor, he’s not coming back to work,” he said.
Employers who do not send supervisors to accompany the injured worker on a physician visit run the risk of being held responsible for injuries that may not be related to the workplace, Mr. Hawkins said.
“That’s where it goes wrong,” he said. “That’s where you lose complete control over case management. You lose control of the situation when you allow an employee on their own to go and see a clinic physician or specialist.”
Engaging the physicians treating injured workers is also critical, Mr. Hawkins said, noting that he once invited the head physician for a clinic treating his company’s injured workers to a class on U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration record-keeping. This was “valuable” because the physician now understands what the company is looking for in terms of recordability of injury.
“That’s part of the relationship we have to develop with the physician,” he said.
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