On-the-job injuries

A dental assistant filed a Workers' Compensation claim, stating she had carpal tunnel syndrome due to her work duties. Prior to becoming employed by the doctor, the employee worked as a production worker...

Bent Ericksen and Tim Twigg

A dental assistant filed a Workers' Compensation claim, stating she had carpal tunnel syndrome due to her work duties. Prior to becoming employed by the doctor, the employee worked as a production worker and filed a Workers' Compensation claim for the same problem. The dentist was hoping to avoid liability because of the previous claim.

Considerations

Workers' Compensation programs are intended to compensate employees who suffer occupational diseases and work-related illnesses or injuries, including repetitive-stress injuries. Injured employees receive benefits regardless of fault - that is, benefits are received regardless of who (the employee, the employer, or a third party, such as another employee) caused the injury.

An employee on Workers' Compensation leave also is provided protection from being terminated or retaliated against, or discriminated against due to being injured and on leave.

In this particular case, the employee complained of a repetitive-stress injury and claimed the injury was work-related. Since she had been treated and released to work without any limitations or restrictions in the previous case, she alleged this was a new injury or that her prior injury had been aggravated by her present job duties. Regardless of the previous similar claim, the doctor in this case did not prevail.

Solution

The best way to minimize Workers' Compensation claims is to ensure a safe working environment - compliance with OSHA regulations - and to check an applicant's Workers' Compensation history.

Employers cannot inquire about an applicant's Workers' Compensation history before a job offer is made. However, after a job offer is extended, an employer can ask about an applicant's Workers' Compensation history. Be cautious, though, about using this information in your hiring-decision process because of claims of discrimination.

For consistency and fairness - and to further avoid claims of discrimination - it is very important that inquiries about an applicant's Worker's Compensation history are made of all new employees in the same job category.

Whenever there is a work-related injury, an accident report should be filled out and notification provided to the Workers' Compensation insurance provider. If an injury develops over a period of time - such as a breathing problem or carpal tunnel syndrome - an employee must report the condition as soon as he or she learns that it may be work-related.

The report should include an explanation of how the injury occurred, who was involved, time and date, signature of the employee, name of witnesses, and if medical care was needed and provided. This information should be recorded on a form such as our Accident Report Form #413.

If a claim is filed, be sure to interview any witnesses and record exactly what took place, including your response. Make sure you save copies of all correspondence with your insurance carrier and all relevant medical information related to the Workers' Compensation claim. When reporting the matter to your Workers' Compensation carrier, be sure to reference any fact-based concern that the precipitating incident was not work-related.

Even with the protections afforded employees with on-the-job injuries, employers should establish Workers' Compensation leave policies requiring periodic reporting on the status of the claim and the time frame for returning to work. Each state has different requirements about the time period that must pass before benefits will be awarded. Mostrequire a seven-day waiting period retroactive to the date of injury.

Action steps

1) Use hiring practices that ensure new employees are capable of performing the duties of the position for which they were hired.
2) Adopt preventive measures and provide regular safety training on proper use of equipment and how to identify and address potential hazards - i.e., post safety requirements.
3) Insist that work-related accidents are reported immediately.
4) Promptly investigate accidents and establish preventive measures.
5) Manage claims to ensure injured employees return to work as soon as possible.
6) Ensure state postings and employee notification requirements are current.

Bent Ericksen is the founder and Tim Twigg is the president of Bent Ericksen and Associates. For over 25 years, the company has been a leading authority in human resources and personnel issues, helping dentists successfully deal with the ever-changing and complex labor laws. Both authors are members of the Academy of Dental Management Consultants. To receive a complimentary copy of the company's quarterly newsletter or to learn more, contact them at (800) 679-2760 or at www.bentericksen.com.

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