Two new studies came to a troubling finding: the usual method of studying reported injuries using workers’ comp records may underestimate the true number of injuries due to underreporting and use of group health insurance. To understand the actual cost of workplace injuries and illnesses, NIOSH-supported researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health studied the cost of health insurance and patterns of underreporting.
One study focused on female healthcare workers. The injured workers’ combined insurance claims were $275 greater at three months post-injury, and at six months had climbed by $587.
Another study looked at whether injury reporting patterns differed among racial groups. Researchers compared the number of workers’ self-reported injuries to the number recorded by their employer’s official injury reporting system among a group of patient-care workers in a U.S. hospital. They found there were almost two times the number of self-reported injuries than those actually reported. While researchers noted that more research is needed, they found that self-reported injuries were more likely to go unreported to the hospital by black workers than were injuries to white workers.
Employer takeaway: These findings indicate that workers’ compensation costs do not reflect the true cost of work-related illness and injury. There are many explanations for why injuries are underreported, but the safety climate and supervisory enforcement behaviors, which are critically important to determining whether employees experience accidents at work, play a major role in whether employees are comfortable reporting injuries. Workers may fail to report injuries to their employer because they fear retaliation by their employer, stigma from their coworkers, or because they perceive the injury to be too minor or an accepted part of the job.
When an injury isn’t reported or properly cared for immediately, it can worsen and lead to higher health care costs, more lost time, and reduced productivity. One of the best ways to control costs is through early reporting and intervention through the work comp process. The often-quoted study by the Hartford Financial Services Group found that injuries reported four or five weeks after the incident are 45 percent more expensive than injuries reported within the first week due to increased health costs and possible legal fees (or even a lawsuit) associated with late reporting. Equally important, treating injuries through the work comp process will help to ensure an early return to work and improve safety programs.
In addition, employers may not recognize the hurdles employees face in filing a claim. Poor communication about the process, language barriers, cumbersome and paper-laden processes, no provisions for weekend or late-shift employees to report injuries immediately, and slow adoption of technology to report injuries are some of the common roadblocks to early reporting.
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