Returning to work after injury

Workplace injury affects everyone and if not properly managed can prove costly. However if employers take an active role in the return to work process, everyone benefits. Katherine Crichton reports.

Workplace injury affects everyone and if not properly managed can prove costly. However if employers take an active role in the return to work process, everyone benefits. Katherine Crichton reports.

WHEN an injury occurs at the workplace, the employee’s health, mental and emotional state, even livelihood can be affected, with some people experiencing permanent physical and psychological scars that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Whether the injury was due to an accident, the use of a defective product or the negligence of someone else, the plain truth is from medical bills to the cost of rehabilitation and lost days at work not to mention lost wages, returning someone to work can be an expensive proposition.

There is no doubt that prevention is better than a cure and while OHS and workplace safety continues to improve in the manufacturing industry, accidents still happen.

For the period 2006-07, in NSW there were nearly 7,000 claims made by employees in the manufacturing industry, accounting for 17 % of all serious workers compensation claims.

This equates to 27 employees each day requiring one week or more off work, due to work-related injury or disease.

With statistics like these, it is in everyone’s best interest to act quickly, and research has shown the more actively an employer is involved in the injury management process, the better the outcome and impact on their bottom line.

Jon Blackwell, WorkCover NSW CEO, said the success of any workplace injury management and return to work program largely depends upon the cooperation of all participants.

“Employers who work closely with the insurance company and the injured worker will be able to influence the progress of the worker’s recovery.

“The earlier an injury is treated and managed, the sooner the employee can return to work and recover.

This means less downtime and lost productivity, as well as a saving in claims costs – and therefore lower premiums – for employers,” Blackwell explained.

Successful injury management is about ensuring the prompt and safe return to work of an injured worker. It includes treatment of the injury, rehabilitation back to work, retraining into a new skill or new job, management of the worker’s compensation claim and the employment practices of an employer.

Blackwell told Manufacturers Monthly it is important that accidents are investigated in a spirit of ‘no blame’ and that this cooperation continues throughout the entire process.

“Everyone involved is required to cooperate and participate in injury management, including the insurance company, employer, injured worker, treating doctor and all treating practitioners,” he said.

When a worker is injured, an employer must attend to the worker as soon as possible and notify the insurance company within 48 hours of a significant injury (that is, an injury that prevents a worker from doing their usual job continuously for seven or more calendar days).

Employers are also required to nominate rehabilitation providers in consultation with workers and to refer an injured employee to a rehabilitation provider if they face barriers in returning to work.

“A medical certificate reflecting functional capabilities should be provided to the employer and a workplace assessment can be undertaken by an approved workplace rehabilitation provider for return to work services,” Blackwell said.

Returning to work

While most injury management programs run smoothly, there can be some challenges for workers returning to full duties.

Potential issues may include the employer being unable to offer suitable alternative work during the rehabilitation process or the worker may experience difficulty going back to employment after a long absence.

There can also be disagreement about the suitability of work to be performed or even pressure from employers to complete duties that do not comply with medical restrictions.

Referral to an approved workplace rehabilitation provider can help overcome these issues. They are designed to assist employers and workers to identify suitable duties, make recommendations on modifying the work environment as well as determine duties to enable an injured worker return to work.

Dawn Piebanga, MD of IMR (Injury Management & Rehabilitation) said the first thing an employee needs to do after informing the company’s workers compensation insurer (now known as an agent) is to ascertain the significance of their employee’s injury.

“If the injury requires any time off work, then it becomes a workers compensation claim, and this is when it can get more complicated,” Piebanga explained.

“Employers have to legally provide suitable duties for the person returning to work. However, some employers, particularly in the manufacturing industry simply can’t do this because of the repetitive and/or heavy nature of the work involved.

“If a rehabilitation provider is involved, their team of health professionals are equipped to provide a thorough and detailed workplace assessment which can prove that the employer did what they could for their employee.

“This could be the difference between a case ending up in Industrial Relations as opposed to remaining within the workers compensation arena.”

Piebenga said rehabilitation providers also look at other issues that may be hindering an employee’s return to work ranging from personal problems to pre-existing tensions in the work environment (for example, the worker didn’t get a pay rise they were promised).

“Because rehabilitation providers are independent, there is no conflict of interest and since we are focussed on a return to work outcome — that is, to quickly return an injured employee to work — often we can get to the root of the problem,” she said.

Like Blackwell, Piebenga stressed the importance of involving everyone in the return to work process, not just the human resources department and the injured worker.

“We find one of the most important factors in the return to work process is how understanding an injured worker’s employer and co workers are.

“It is really important for employers to keep in touch with the worker when they are off work.

“Taking an active interest in your employee especially early on in the injury process really makes a difference when it comes to getting people back to work.

“It can be as simple as sending a card or flowers — it shows that you are really committed to having them return to work,” she said.

Piebenga also advised employers to develop and maintain a good relationship with a local doctor and rehabilitation provider so that when an injury does occur, the worker can be assessed as soon as possible.

“Even if you are only a small manufacturing plant and only have an injury once a year or a time loss injury every couple of years, to have a preferred provider – someone who knows your industry and your business -allows you to ensure your workers compensation premiums remain under control,” she said.

IMR 1300 662 582.

WorkCover NSW 13 10 50.

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