Thursday, May 19, 2016

Education and Communication in Employment

A recent blog post, The Right Time to Educate Employees, by Lance Ewing caught my attention. Mr. Ewing focuses us on the occurence of an injury. He argues that employees do not pay much attention to workers' compensation as a day-to-day matter. I had the opportunity to speak at the NCCI Annual Issues Symposium recently, and this was similarly a theme of my presentation. Workers' compensation is all around the employer/employee relationship, providing a safety net that most will never need and few are therefore likely to appreciate. I think our points are similar; no one pays attention to comp until they need it. 

An injury at work may be relatively minor. The vast majority of work injuries are. We call these "first aid" injuries. They are often not recorded in the OSHA records, do not require a trip to the doctor or emergency room, and are resolved fairly rapidly. I do not have volumes for "first aid" cases, but logically there are many of these. Cut fingers, material in the eyes, abrasions, etc. It is not hard to imagine that these happen daily. 

Then there are the "reported cases." These are "medical only," which require medical care, but do not result in time lost from work. The reported cases also include the cases in which absence was necessary, called "lost time" cases. It is reasonably consistent in Florida that "medical only" claims are about 75% of the reported cases and "lost time are about 25%. It fluctuates, but this is reasonably consistent. Here is a representation of several years supporting this trend.


It is interesting to note that the total volume has trended down in recent years. Less people are reporting work injuries, whether because fewer are happening or because fewer are reported is debated in workers' compensation circles. But Mr. Ewing focuses on a serious injury, "not just a minor cut or a mild soft tissue injury," suffered by a valued and productive employee. 

He focuses on a traumatic and "severe injury," that results in significant and apparent loss of body function. He reminds us that the natural human reaction is that this "
valued employee is scared, confused, and in pain." Now this employee is a person that needs to understand workers' compensation, wants to understand it. The safety net that has been there all along, without receiving much consideration or attention, suddenly and tragically can become a focus with immediate and significant relevance. 

This is the moment at which too many employers drop the proverbial ball. This is the moment that an "employee" becomes a "claimant," a valued asset becomes a liability. The business is disrupted, medical response may be summoned to the scene, work stops, everyone becomes focused on the injury and their own involvement. This could be their actual involvement as a co-worker, or merely their own shock and concern that such an injury or accident could have been them. Events like this disrupt the entire workplace. I have witnessed it too many times.

Mr. Ewing laments that workers' compensation is a subject too rarely interwoven with new employee orientation, and “onboarding;” that not enough time is focuses on educating any employees about the how and why of workers' compensation during the process of employment. The topic is not prioritized and he questions "why are some companies reluctant to train and inform their employees?" That is a reasonable question and the answer is likely not that difficult. 

He argues that companies hide workers' compensation out of fear that employees who know of it will be encouraged to report incidents (back to the debate of whether injuries or just reporting are decreasing); the company fear that "increases in workers' compensation claims" would naturally follow education. He cautions, however, that the employee will be educated, and that the company cannot decide if the employee receives instruction. That will come from the employer or from a "workers’ compensation plaintiff’s lawyer whom they found via an inflammatory television advertisement." 

Mr. Ewing argues that employer education is a powerful tool. That it sets a tone of the work relationship, demonstrating employer concern and compassion. He contends that employee understanding of workers' compensation in broad terms of coverage and process will prepare the employee for the potential of a future event, and could decrease the probability of litigation after such an event. He provides a list of potential subjects for an educational effort for new employees and workers' compensation.  

I cannot disagree with a proactive approach to workplace knowledge. As they say "knowledge is power," and an educated and informed workforce is a benefit. But, there is evidence that many workplace injuries occur at small employers. This makes sense because a majority of Americans work in small business or are self-employed according to Forbes. And as new jobs are created in the economy, many are in this small business category. The smaller businesses naturally face a greater challenge in this education process. 

Small business is far less likely to have formal processes or procedures for new employee orientation or "onboarding." I know this from working in small businesses, owning small businesses and representing a great many small businesses over the years. Managers and owners of small businesses often wear a great many hats, and spend their time each day on a variety of tasks and responsibilities. They sometimes do not have smooth transitions from resignation to new employees. I have seen managers waiting tables, operating machines, and running errands, filling-in during a vacancy while simultaneously trying to interview and hire to fill that void. Anyone that suggests it is easy is simply uninformed or a fool. 

The training of employees is sometimes the furthest concern from employer's minds. They are focused instead on getting that new-hire in place, legal paperwork completed, and getting back to the role of manager or owner. That is, back to the big-picture focus of running the business. There are those who believe that running and growing a business is not that difficult or challenging. I encourage these people to try it sometime. Managing a business is a major undertaking with a great many pitfalls. Among them is the potential of work injuries, but so are the potentials of supply shortages, job bidding, employee retention, government compliance, and much more. 

Why don't these employers focus more on workers' compensation? Because it is innocuous. The fact that it exists, and in so many instances apparently works as intended, perhaps keeps it from the front of people's minds in the boisterous parade of day-to-day issues and concerns of employers and employees alike. The concerns of today are perhaps more likely to inhabit the immediate thoughts? There is that dripping faucet you need a washer for, the issues your child is having with ________ at school, the dentist appointment you have been meaning to make, the disagreement you are having with a sibling about care for your parent, etc., etc. Life is often full of the "here-and-now," and it can be hard to bring focus to the "what if" concerns of the future while dealing with life's challenges. 

Like a fire extinguisher under the kitchen sink, most people do not think about workers' compensation until they need it. This is true of employers and employees alike. Certainly, if a company grows large enough, there may be an employee or even department focused on safety and risk. But that is unlikely in a small business. And I have heard such "safety managers" in large companies complain that they are given too few resources and too many tasks to remain proactive and effective. |

How often does work injury occur in America? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says that in 2014 "nearly 3.0 million nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses (were) reported" in private industry. And the trend nationally was likewise decreasing, with 54,000 fewer reported in 2014 than 2013. The workplace is arguably becoming safer. The BLS says that this is a trend that has been reasonably consistent over the last decade. This perhaps fuels the belief (or hope) that an accident "will never happen to me," and an ambivalence toward the workers' compensation system safety net that is perhaps really only of interest when you need it. 

It is possible that people cannot be enthused about workers' compensation at the time an employee is hired and "onboarded." But it is likely that discussion of safety and injury avoidance can be incorporated into the day-to-day of our working lives. If management provides a focus on safety in the "here-and-now," perhaps that can include some reference to the safety net of workers' compensation in the here-and-now, and the benefits to all involved of injury and accident avoidance. 

But more importantly, remember that when that accident occurs, it is not a transformational event. That employee who went to work that day is still an employee when and after the accident or injury occurs. That employee was a valued team member, and it will be a great comfort to them if the employer treats them like a valued team member after the accident. Then there is immediacy. After the accident and injury the employee is very interested in workers' compensation; they need workers' compensation; they need to understand workers' compensation. They want reassurance and care (we all would). 

Mr. Ewing advocates "keeping communication open and transparent at the onset of employment," and that is likely good advice. But it is even more important for this communication process to exist and flourish after the work accident. Company owners and managers need to engage following a work accident and they need to be engaging, communicative and involved. Though early employment communication and education is a worthy goal, how the employer responds after an event may be just as critical in diffusing "the 'us versus them' mindset and can show that the company embraces a collaborative approach to getting the employee back to work as soon as possible."

At a recent educational program, with ample tension and angst about the newly delivered Supreme Court opinion in Castellanos, I was asked about "effectively dealing" with work injuries. I think Castellanos has nothing to do with that. This decision is about litigation and attorney fees; arguably it is about "cases" or "claims," but is not about work injuries themselves. Effectively dealing with a work injury is relatively simple in my opinion; keep the "human" in "human relations." Treat the injured employee just as you would a family member. 

That means getting them the appropriate care and treatment, answering questions, listening, and commiserating. Understand that having a worker absent (unable to work) or restricted (unable to work as before) is a disruption to the employer; but may be as much or more of a disruption to the employee's family (who is picking up the kids from school, mowing the grass, all of those things we all do every day)? Workers' compensation provides a "wage replacement," but it does not address these other day-to-day needs perhaps. 

After an injury is a time for reflection. How can such an event be prevented in the future? That is a normal reaction. But it is also a time of support and expression. What message will be sent? It is a critical moment in which one can express how much or how little that employee is valued. While education early in the employment process is a worthy goal, education and communication following an injury is perhaps more critical still.  


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