Getting employees onboard to new approaches for back pain

Chronic back pain is one of the most persistent and difficult issues to deal with in Workers’ Compensation. With an aging and overweight workforce, it will continue to be a dominant cause of work comp claims. Moreover, about 85 percent of lower-back pain is idiopathic – without a specific or known cause – making it difficult to separate the impact of aging or outside activities from legitimate work-related causes.

Within the last several years, the industry has shifted away from bed rest, medical imaging, pain medications, and surgery to more conservative care, such as exercise, customized ergonomic training, yoga, physical therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, acupuncture, and anti-inflammatory medications.

A 2014 study by Liberty Mutual’s Institute for Safety found that early use of MRIs on injured workers complaining of back pain may lead to unnecessary procedures and even longer disability periods. Other studies have put the cost of back-pain claims using MRIs at $12,000 more than claims that did not use early MRIs.

In some cases, an MRI can trigger a recommendation of surgery even though the changes can be attributed to a normal result of the aging process. If a physician wants to find an excuse to recommend surgery, it is there. Suddenly, for the employee, the perception of the problem escalates from annoying pain to a catastrophic condition.

In an age of MRI scans, getting employees on board with alternative approaches can be challenging. Understandably, employees are afraid of doing more damage to their spine and movement and exercise can seem counterintuitive. They anticipate worsening of symptoms with certain activities. And for couch potatoes, the prospects of activity can be overwhelming and surgery can be viewed as a cure-all. Changing the mindset is an important first step.

Provide reassurance with carefully chosen words

Speaking at the recent California Workers’ Compensation and Risk Conference, Dr. Jennifer Christian, president and chief medical officer at Wayland, Massachusetts-based Webility Corp., spoke about the power of words. Don’t call it “your injury,” instead, call it “your recovery process.” Don’t say “getting you back to work.” say, “getting your life back to normal.” Don’t ask about pain; ask about progress. She urged employers and claim handlers to be on the front line and help employees overcome their fears about how long they are going to be laid up and how they can manage their job, questions doctors often find difficult to answer.

Make ergonomic training effective

Employees will listen and buy into training if it makes them feel better. A recent article in Business Insurance highlighted a successful tailored ergonomic training program for employees of Greyhound Lines Inc. In 2010, the company saw 745 mostly musculoskeletal injuries. Most were related to material handling issues – pushing, pulling, twisting and lifting.

At the time, its training was a basic lifting program – one size fits all, regardless of what the person did. Today, safety experts study the job and come up with a tailored approach. With this customized program, the number of such claims dropped to 295 in 2016. Employees need motivation to make changes in behavior; feeling better, both on and off their job, is a great motivator.

In the article, ergonomics expert Dennis Downing, CEO of Future Industrial Technologies, Inc., noted some common, yet, ineffective practices. Likening the practice to teaching a child to swim, he said video-based training doesn’t work. You wouldn’t show a child a video, and then toss them in a pool. Offering a free lunch is also a no-no. “We had a hard time figuring out why companies were bribing employees with food,” he said of the common practice of providing ergonomics training – how to better lift, push, pull, and stretch – over a free lunch.

There is no silver bullet

It is going to take a careful assessment of the workplace, the demographics of the employees, and an analysis of the claims related to back pain to craft an effective plan. Whereas some employees may embrace new approaches with simple education, others need a multidisciplinary approach that includes more advanced psychological informed rehabilitation.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

What employers should expect from an insurance agent

My fellow Institute of WorkComp Professionals educator wrote this article to summarize items that an employer should expect from their insurance agent when it comes to helping the employer to manage their workers compensation insurance program.

By Kevin Ring
Institute of Work Comp Professionals
Editor’s note: Kevin Ring, CWCA, CWCA, MWCA, is Lead Analyst at Institute of WorkComp Professionals, Asheville, NC of which we are a member. It trains and certifies independent insurance agents and their support staff to navigate the complicated workers’ compensation system and act as advocates operating between employers and their insurance companies.
Most workers’ compensation discussions focus on the roles of four active players: injured worker, physician, employer, and insurance company. But what about the insurance agent? Far too often, agents step into the background. There is something wrong with this picture. Workers’ compensation is one coverage area in which insurance agents can effectively demonstrate their value.

Here’s how we work to make a difference for the employers we serve:

Ensure the employee classifications are correct
With an average of 500 to 600 available job classifications, it’s easy for mistakes to occur. For example, a clerical employee (low workers’ comp rate) can be misclassified into one with a higher rate, which increases the cost. This is just one; many others can occur.

In fact, it’s even easier for mistakes to perpetuate themselves. An insurance agent calls on a prospect and asks to submit a quote and the owner agrees, thinking it’s a good idea to shop around. To get the necessary information, the agent asks to see the existing policy, copies the information, and goes back to the office to prepare the quote. If there are mistakes, they keep showing up.

Who is responsible for finding mistakes and correcting them so the employer only pays what is owed? Frankly, it’s the insurance agent who has the account. We’re trained how to find and correct mistakes so employers are not exposed and pay more than necessary.
Help employers develop a physician relationship
When it comes to reducing workers’ comp costs, particularly medical expenses, the importance of employers having a relationship with physicians with work-related injury and illnesses expertise cannot be overstated.

Too often, when an injury occurs, injured employees are sent to their personal doctor, an emergency room, or a nearby walk-in clinic. This can lead to higher costs, delayed return to work, and an increase in the experience mod, which lasts for three years.

If this is to change, it starts with having the right physician relationship. We can help an employer identify physicians with expertise in occupational medicine, go with the employer to interview doctors, develop options for alternate duty, help make sure the selected physician understands the business, the types of work performed, and any other employer expectations so that the physician is prepared when injuries occur.

 

Help an employer develop a process of what to do when employees are injured
What happens when an employee suffers an injury? Depending on the extent of the injury, in many cases employees are sent home and told to take it easy for the day, go to their own doctor, to the emergency room, or walk-in clinic. When you think about it, this is the only time employers give workers a blank check and tell them to go where they please without vetting the vendor.

It’s not good business because the employer has no control over the quality, cost, or outcome of the service. To change this, our task is to help the employer create a process that assures injured employees will receive proper care so they can return to the job as soon as appropriate.

Such a process may come as a surprise to employers who assume the insurance company is in charge. Actually, it’s more like opening the door and letting the fox in the hen house. Since employers are writing the check for their workers’ comp, they need to take charge of the process.
Analyze data to understand and foresee injuries
There’s a wealth of information in workers’ comp loss run reports, as well as OSHA reporting forms. Proactive agents work with employers to identify problem areas, which are often indicators that a larger, costly injury will occur, if changes are not made.
Serve as an effective conduit between the employer and the insurance company
When it comes to insurance, most employers are ill-equipped to have informed conversations with insurance companies. So, they reach out to their insurance agent when there’s a problem.

Today, insurance companies are all about reducing risks. It’s the agent’s role to position the employer in the best possible light with the insurance company to ensure competitive pricing and policy offerings.

Since the insurance agent knows both the employer and the carrier, it’s the agent who is best able to serve as the intermediary between the employer and the insurance company.
Help employers understand the technical nature of insurance language
Like the law, words have meaning in insurance. No one can feel comfortable with insurance unless they learn its language. Therefore, employers immediately file away insurance policies without even looking at them. They drag them out only when there’s a loss.

It doesn’t take a cynic to suggest that some insurance agents may like it this way. It gives them more control. But we recognize that a “secret language” is a barrier in the client relationship. It’s also an opportunity to help employers understand insurance by communicating its complexities simply and clearly. And, it’s worthwhile. No employer wants to be blindsided because they didn’t understand something, particularly when high costs are involved.
Help employers prepare for the workers’ comp premium audit so they pay only what they owe
Employers tend to view a workers’ comp audit as a minor inconvenience. The big question can be where to put the auditor. All of which suggests the annual audit is a low involvement event.

Now, compare this with an IRS audit, when all the stops are pulled out weeks in advance, and carefully choreographed by the accounting firm. No responsible business owner would go into an IRS audit the way most approach a workers’ comp audit that involves substantial sums of money.

It’s in an employer’s best interest to expect the insurance agent to help them prepare for a workers’ comp audit, particularly since auditors work for the insurance company. The agent understands the insurance language and knows the rules. During the weeks leading up to an audit, the agent can review the payroll records, check for incorrect job classifications, determine whether severance pay is excluded from comp, among others. If they find mistakes, they can correct them before the audit takes place.
Review information on employee injuries prior to the “magic moment”
This is the date the insurance company reports the employer’s information to the rating bureau for inclusion on the experience mod. It occurs 18 months from the inception of the account and every 12 months thereafter. Here’s what the report includes:

  • What has been paid thus far on employee injuries
  • What the insurance company has “reserved” (the estimated funds needed to ultimately resolve an employee injury.)

It’s important to review this data carefully. For example, if the reserves are higher than they should be, the employer’s experience mod will go up, which increases the company’s workers’ comp expense. Higher mods can render a business less competitive or, in the case of construction firms, ineligible to bid on certain jobs. The goal is also to make sure cases are not opened that should be closed, and that the reserves are relatively accurate.
Help the employer build a “recovery-at-work” program, so injured employees can be at work, rather than sitting at home
This is also known as “light duty,” “transitional duty,” or “return-to-work.” However, the term recovery-at-work more accurately describes what should happen and lets the injured worker know what to expect.

The recovery-at-work model sends injured employees the message that they are both valued and they can still be productive. Aided by transitional duty job descriptions, the physician can determine if the employee can return to work, along with job restrictions.

If the injured worker is back to work before lost time wage benefits begin, there is less negative impact on the experience mod. This can be a significant cost savings since the average lost time claim in 2016 was $53,000. But it’s also true that injured employees recover faster if they are at work.

Some managers still say, “Give me a whole man or no man.” But, happily more recognize the value of recovery-at-work. The insurance agent can help employers make it work best by identifying appropriate work activities based on physician restrictions, if any.

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com

EEOC ordered to reconsider wellness rules

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC’s) rules about the fees employers can assess workers who do not participate in wellness programs were ruled arbitrary by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Aug. 22. Rather than vacate the rules, the court sent them back to the agency for redrafting. The court’s decision does not vacate the EEOC rules and employers are obligated to comply with existing rules, but should be alert to future changes.


Work conditions ‘unpleasant, potentially hazardous’ for more than half of Americans: study

Nearly 55 percent of American workers claim they encounter “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions on the job, according to a study from nonprofit research institute RAND Corp., Harvard Medical School, and the University of California, Los Angeles. Nearly 1 in 5 workers reported exposure to a “hostile or threatening social environment at work” and 1 in 4 said they do not have enough time to complete job tasks.


National survey on fatigue indicates it is a hidden, but potentially deadly workplace epidemic

Some 43 percent of Americans say they do not get enough sleep to mitigate critical risks that can jeopardize safety at work and on the roads, including the ability to think clearly, make informed decisions, and be productive, according to a new National Safety Council survey-based report, Fatigue in the Workplace: Causes & Consequences of Employee Fatigue. An estimated 13 percent of workplace injuries could be attributed to fatigue.


CDC launches website on worker wellness programs

To help employers start or expand employee health promotion programs, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created the Workplace Health Resource Center website.


New app from NIOSH: Lifting Equation Calculator

In an effort to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders, NIOSH has released a mobile app based on the Revised NIOSH Lifting Equation, an internationally recognized standard for safe manual lifting.


Updated ergo guide from NIOSH offers strategies for preventing MSDs

The NIOSH Musculoskeletal Disorders Research Program has updated its guidance document on the formation and function of ergonomics programs. Intended for both workers and employers, it provides strategies for identifying and correcting ergonomic hazards, as well as references, forms and questionnaires.


Guide offers best practices for safely using bleach to clean and sanitize

A new safety guide published by the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine, Occupational and Environmental Medicine Division offers best practices for workers exposed to bleach, including janitors, housekeepers, environmental engineers, and hospital, restaurant, maintenance and agricultural workers.


FMCSA, FRA withdraw rulemaking on sleep apnea

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration have withdrawn an advance notice of proposed rulemaking on obstructive sleep apnea. “The agencies … believe that current safety programs and FRA’s rulemaking addressing fatigue risk management are the appropriate avenues to address OSA,” FMCSA and FRA stated in a notice published in the Aug. 4 Federal Register.


Operation Safe Driver Week set for mid-October

Law enforcement officers are expected to keep a particularly sharp eye on the roads Oct. 15-21 during the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s Operation Safe Driver Week. Officers will be looking for commercial motor vehicle and passenger vehicle drivers engaging in dangerous behaviors such as speeding, texting, following too closely and not wearing seat belts.


Opioids updates

  • One in 12 US physicians received a payment involving an opioid during a 29-month study of pharmaceutical industry influences on opioid prescribing, according to researchers who will publish their findings in September’s American Journal of Public Health. During the study, 375,266 non-research opioid-related payments were made to 68,177 physicians, totaling $46,158,388.
  • A study from the Worker’s Compensation Research Institute examines the prevalence and trends of longer-term dispensing of opioids in 26 state workers’ compensation systems. It also documents how often the services (i.e., drug testing, psychological evaluation, and treatment, etc.) recommended by treatment guidelines were used for managing chronic opioid therapy.

Study casts doubts on effectiveness of marijuana in combatting chronic pain

Research funded by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was published on the Annals of Internal Medicine website. Limited evidence suggests that cannabis may alleviate neuropathic pain in some patients, but insufficient evidence exists for other types of chronic pain. There was also sufficient evidence to conclude that cannabis use among the general population probably increased the risk of car accidents, psychotic symptoms, and short-term cognitive impairment. It was noted more research is needed.

CSB releases animated video on Louisiana refinery fire

The Chemical Safety Board has released an animated video that examines the cause of last year’s ExxonMobil refinery fire, which severely burned four workers in Baton Rouge, LA.

State News

California

  • New regulations aimed at preventing incidents such as the 2012 Chevron Corp. fire at oil refineries will take effect Oct. 1.
  • Ratings bureau proposes small workers’ comp premium increase for 2018.
  • Workers’ comp bill safeguarding pregnant women put on hold.

Florida

  • NCCI recommends comp premium decrease of 9.6% effective Jan. 1, 2018.

Illinois

  • The National Council on Compensation Insurance (NCCI) recommends a 10.9% workers’ compensation premium rate decrease for Illinois.
  • Governor vetoes state-funded comp insurance plan.

Minnesota

  • Effective August 1, patients with post-traumatic stress disorder can purchase medical marijuana.
  • Department of Labor and Industry adopted the final rule from the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration about walking-working surfaces and personal fall-protection systems.

New York

  • Employers should prepare to comply with the Paid Family Leave that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2018.

Pennsylvania

  • The Compensation Rating Bureau filed an emergency 6.06% loss cost increase in the wake of a state Supreme Court decision that blocks impairment rating evaluations.

 

For Cutting-Edge Strategies on Managing Risks and slashing Insurance Costs visit www.StopBeingFrustrated.com