In today’s fast-moving business environment and volatile political atmosphere, nothing stays the same for very long, including Workers’ Compensation. Here are 18 ongoing trends and emerging issues to watch in 2018.
- Comp rates continue downward trend It’s good news for employers that comp rates are decreasing in most states as claims frequency declines and workplace safety continues to improve. This, coupled with relatively modest increases in medical costs and stable indemnity cost, means a reduction in loss costs and rates. Safety programs at the workplace, automation that has made hazardous jobs safer, a shift from more hazardous jobs to service jobs, and access to better medical care have all contributed to this favorable trend.There are a few areas that are more challenging, including the trucking and hospitality industries. Geographically, rates in California remain among the highest in the country and in Florida there still is concern about rising claims and legal costs, but rates are falling in both states in 2018. Rates in Pennsylvania are expected to increase 6-7% this year due to a Pennsylvania’s State Supreme Court 2017 ruling on injured employees on workers’ compensation over 2 years that will have a significant impact on rates in 2018 and moving forward unless legislation is addressed. Moreover, workplace fatalities rose to the highest level since 2008.
Takeaway: This is no time to become complacent. Hourly wages have been slowly trending up, along with employment. Claims have become more complex with comorbidities, aging, chronic pain, improved medical processes, and so on. The long tail nature of claims means that premiums collected today must cover losses for years to come. Insurance companies are using big data and more sophisticated predictive pricing models. Employers that collect and analyze data to improve cost controls, embrace innovative and progressive management of their Workers’ Comp program, and highlight them in underwriting submissions will reap the benefits.
- OSHA becomes more employer-friendly Under the Trump administration, there is a significant shift from the enforcement philosophy of the Obama administration to one of enforcement and compliance assistance.Combustible dust, vehicle backing hazards, hearing protection in construction, and updates to chemical PELs were removed from the regulatory agenda and workplace violence, process safety management, infectious diseases in healthcare, and emergency response and preparedness were moved to “long-term actions.” Enforcement of the silica standard on general industry and the maritime industry is scheduled to begin on June 23, 2018, but the Trump administration may seek a delay, depending on its experience with enforcement of the standard on the construction industry.
Expect more emphasis on Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP), possible changes to “repeat” violation policies and National Emphasis Programs, much less public shaming, more limited use of the general duty clause, and changes to the e-recordkeeping and anti-retaliation rule.
Takeaway: In spite of these shifts, employers should not assume they are guaranteed employer-friendly outcomes when dealing with OSHA, nor plan on specific regulatory changes, which will take time. While there may be closer adherence to the standards, the increased enforcement fines remain in effect, with some significant fines levied in 2017.
- New technologies will continue to emerge The ability to strengthen safety, provide health information, improve working conditions, and boost productivity with the adoption of new technologies (drones, wearables, the IoT, laser scanning, apps, emerging robotic technologies, and autonomous safety systems) will continue to grow. A virtual approach to ergonomics is emerging as a more efficient way to prevent or mitigate injuries.With this comes the need to understand regulatory requirements, privacy laws, insurance, and protection from liabilities. While the opportunities are compelling, some industries, such as construction, have been slow to adapt.
The advances in technology also impact the medical treatment available for injured workers. Some new treatments will restore full functionality, others will significantly increase costs, and some expand the exposures for lifetime indemnity and medical benefits.
Takeaway: As the benefits of using these technologies are proven and their prices decrease, more employers will adopt to improve safety and increase competitiveness. Evaluating functionality, security, and employee buy-in will be key in making product choices. New technologies mean new risks and promoting best practices for controlling exposures to hazards involving human interaction with technology, as well as training to mitigate the risks of workers becoming distracted or disengaged are crucial to obtain improved efficiency and reduced costs.
From a medical vantage point, the use of evidence-based medicine and relationships with occupational physicians will continue to grow in importance.
- More employers will practice advocacy-based claims management Employers who have an “us vs them” attitude towards workers who have experienced a work-related injury are living in the past. Transparency, collaboration, and communication are the techniques that dominate effective claims management today.By easing the minds of injured workers and helping guide the recovery process, employers can avoid adversarial relationships and obtain better outcomes.
Takeaway: It’s not a costly practice, but it takes commitment and consistency to work and an understanding of the injured worker. It can’t be a cookie cutter process; it’s a culture.
- New training techniques Training that requires focus, reinforces good practices, highly engages workers, is deliverable 24/7, and has no language barriers is not traditional training. Gamification, virtual reality (VR), and simulations have moved training from passive seminars, video watching, and form-filling to interactive culture and behavioral changing programs. Moreover, site specific safety orientation, daily tool talks, and near miss analysis and discussion build trust with workers and focus on the unique challenges of the job.Takeaway: While the top ten OSHA violations are evidence that many employers fail to meet their training obligations, it’s also true that training is often boring and ineffective. New approaches focus on problem solving and collaboration. The importance of training is how well employees remember and use what they know when the time comes to protect themselves, not that the obligation has been fulfilled.
- Alternative treatments for chronic pain While opioid prescribing is on the downturn in workers’ compensation and opioid early intervention programs have become an industry mainstay, legacy claims are a serious problem for the industry. Also, chronic pain particularly from musculoskeletal conditions, remains a serious problem among the workforce and must be addressed. Less invasive approaches such as education and self-care options; conservative therapies like exercise, acupuncture, physical therapy, and yoga; cognitive behavioral training to address psychological factors; and comprehensive pain management are leading the way. The debate rages on about the possibilities of medical marijuana.Takeaway: Employers offering access to affordable and evidence-based options that can help employees in pain can reduce their costs by mitigating unnecessary treatments, reducing lost time, and improving productivity. A comprehensive program provides education and is tailored to the individual needs of the employee.
Medical marijuana continues to challenge employers in their substance abuse programs and drug testing, and state judicial and legislative bodies as they decide whether to permit reimbursement of medical marijuana as a compensable workers’ compensation benefit. Staying abreast of relevant legal decisions and clearly defined policies in employee handbooks is key.
- Medical practices will continue to change Telemedicine is here and expanding. Delivering medical care and information via telecommunication networks is impacting case management, physician’s visits, and rehab. It’s being used effectively for employees working in remote areas, integrated with the nurse triage process, particularly for minor injuries, and follow-up care, including post-op visits, home treatment plans, questions and answers, and consultations with specialists. There’s also been an uptick in telerehab, which supplements in-clinic physical therapy, with virtual access to physical therapy. The possibilities will continue to expand.Takeaway: The benefits of telemedicine can be significant, including cost savings, better access to care, immediate triaging of injuries, and faster claims closings. Issues facing employers include state laws, which vary in the types of services covered, provider requirements, reimbursements, and medical licensure; changing roles of stakeholders who are providing service to injured workers; patient and data privacy; monitoring quality of outcomes; and systems connectivity.
- Mental health issues will be talked about more The significant impact of mental health in workers’ comp continues to emerge. Legislative efforts to make it easier for first responders to receive workers’ compensation benefits for mental stress injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder) have met with varying degrees of success. The effect of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues on delayed return to work, increased claims costs, and workplace violence are more fully understood and recognized.Takeaway: Companies are becoming more cognizant of these issues and are more focused on building healthy workplace cultures. The stigma attached to mental health is a societal problem and greater education is needed to identify mental health issues and appropriate treatment.
Regulatory and external factors can become disruptors including:
- Natural disasters have a significant impact on the industry
- The national opioid crisis finds its way into the workplace, with double digit increases in overdose fatalities
- Globalization means borderless business and new challenges to keep traveling employees safe
- Debate over drug formularies will continue to rage in many states
- The Gig economy raises questions of adequately protecting workers
- The question of independent contractor vs. employee remains one of the hottest, most litigious areas
- Rising on-demand services change the risks faced by workers
- Changes to immigration laws have significant implications for the hospitality, restaurant, agricultural, construction, and technology industries as well as others
- 24/7 connectivity has implications for employee fatigue, driver safety, productivity
- The new tax law will mean changes in investment priorities and could lead to accelerated automation
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