The quandary of legal pot and workers’ compensation deepens

Now that 28 states have legalized the medical and/or recreational use of marijuana, employers are struggling with zero tolerance policies, pre-employment drug testing, employee drug testing, discrimination suits, and general uncertainty. Laws about marijuana vary from state to state, making questions about how it affects workers’ comp and other employer policies even more confusing. Further, as states tighten up laws on the use of opioids to manage pain, some argue that cannabis is a viable alternative, raising concerns that workers will be impaired when they return to work.

The changing landscapes are challenging for employers and will lead to more litigation, new laws and regulations. Here are six recent actions and trends that employers should know about:

  1. Federal budget protects medical marijuanaAlthough Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been an outspoken critic of medical marijuana, the $1 trillion spending bill approved in May, which will fund the U.S. government until the end of September, includes language that protects state medical marijuana programs from federal enforcement. It provides no funding for any prosecution of cases involving medical marijuana where it has been made legal. Recreational users are not protected under this provision.
  2. Opioid crisis drives loosening of use of medical marijuana in comp casesAlthough medical marijuana remains illegal under federal law, the landscape of marijuana use in workers’ comp is changing. Some advocate its use as a way to stem the epidemic of addiction and opioid abuse, but others argue there is little validated research to determine its effectiveness and possible side effects. Others see it as an effective way to reduce the ongoing costs of legacy claims, particularly those involving workers who will not return to work.In states such as New Mexico and Louisiana, judges have ordered insurers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana, when deemed medically necessary by a treating physician. New Mexico also required carriers to start reporting marijuana reimbursements beginning Jan. 1, 2016. For 2016, 15 payers reported reimbursements for medical marijuana totaling $46,826 for 19 claims. The average reimbursement amount per claim was $2,465. On average, each injured worker was reimbursed for 205 grams of marijuana, or about 22% of the maximum 920 grams allowed per year.In May, the Maine Supreme Court agreed to hear a case in which an administrative law judge had ordered reimbursement under workers’ compensation for an injured worker’s medical marijuana. While the Maine law made clear that medical marijuana was not a drug that could be paid for by a private health insurer, the statutory language does not apply to other insurers, including workers’ comp. Insurers and employers are awaiting the outcome of Bourgoin vs. Twin Rivers Paper Company.

    Even when the law permits insurers to reimburse injured workers for medical marijuana, the claims are complex. The doctors prescribing cannabis typically may not be the same physicians treating injured workers for the medical cause of their workers’ comp claim. It needs to be determined whether marijuana is medically appropriate, why they recommend it, and whether it is really for the work-comp injury or some other condition.

  3. Employers rethinking drug testing policiesA key challenge to employers is measuring impairment, when an employee uses marijuana. At issue is how long marijuana stays in a person’s system and the lack of a reliable test to determine what level of THC (the chemical ingredient that causes the “high”) leads to certain impairment.Positive marijuana tests continue to climb in both federally mandated, safety sensitive workplaces and the general workforce, according to Quest Diagnostics, Inc. Colorado and Washington, where recreational marijuana has been legal for several years, saw some of the biggest leaps for workers in safety-sensitive jobs. However, the dilemma for employers is that a positive test does not always equate with impairment.Although courts have supported employers in pre-employment drug testing cases, fewer Colorado employers are doing it. A tight labor market may be a reason, but some believe employers have become more accepting and looking for other ways to manage the issue.

    Some experts suggest that employers have a separate policy for marijuana testing. In developing any policy, it’s important to consider what type of work employees are doing. Employers can have separate drug testing policies for those in safety-sensitive positions, machine operators, and still another for office and administrative workers.

    Others suggest the use of impairment or psychomotor testing, rather than the traditional urine, saliva, or hair testing, when legally possible. With traditional testing, it’s difficult to determine whether the employee is high and impaired or is testing positive with lingering traces from weekend use. They argue that the point of drug testing is to determine if workers can do their job safely and not endanger others, and that impairment testing that measures reaction time, decision-making, and pattern recognition against an employee’s baseline is more effective.

    The state of Maine recently offered state employers “impairment detection training,” noting employers can continue drug screening of employees until the recreational marijuana law goes into effect in February 2018. However, thereafter, if not amended, testing for marijuana use will violate the state’s regulations protecting those who wish to use marijuana recreationally outside of work.

    However, many employers and federally mandated testing still rely on traditional testing, believing it is the best way to control risk. For example, the Department of Transportation (DOT) determined that the urine tests would not change because of the new state laws legalizing marijuana.

    For a workers’ comp claim to be denied, some states require employers to prove that a worker’s intoxication caused the injury, which can be difficult when the only evidence is a positive marijuana drug test. Employers are encouraged to better train supervisors and employees to recognize impairment and take steps to control and document it.

  4. Non-hiring or firing for positive marijuana testing can lead to discrimination suitsA “watershed” decision in Massachusetts sheds light on the issues employers face in employment practices and zero tolerance drug policies. In Cristina Barbuto vs. Advantage Sales and Marketing L.L.C., a worker was authorized by her physician to use marijuana to stimulate her appetite and help with symptoms of Crohn’s disease and informed the company that she would test positive on drug screenings. A supervisor told her the medicinal use of marijuana “should not be a problem,” which he later confirmed after consulting with others at the company, according to court documents.On her first day of work, she submitted a urine sample for a mandatory drug test and began work. Later in the day, she was terminated by an HR rep for testing positive for marijuana and was told the company followed federal, not state, law. She filed discrimination charges, alleging six claims, including handicap discrimination, invasion of privacy and denial of the right to use marijuana lawfully as a registered patient to treat a debilitating medical condition.A trial court judge dismissed all claims except the invasion of privacy claim, but a six-judge panel of the Massachusetts Supreme Court reversed the lower court judge’s dismissal of her claim for handicap discrimination and related claims, but affirmed the motion to dismiss on counts claiming an implied private cause of action and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Notably, the supreme judicial court became the first appellate court in any jurisdiction to hold that medical marijuana users may assert state law handicap or disability discrimination claims-regardless of whether the state’s medical marijuana statute provides explicit employment protections. (Massachusetts’s medical marijuana statute does not provide such employment protections.)

    “The fact that the employee’s possession of medical marijuana is in violation of federal law does not make it per se unreasonable as an accommodation,” the court ruled. “The only person at risk of federal criminal prosecution for her possession of medical marijuana is the employee. An employer would not be in joint possession of medical marijuana or aid and abet its possession simply by permitting an employee to continue his or her off-site use.” The case has been remanded to the Superior Court.

    Takeaways for employers:

    • Employers may find it harder to argue that an adverse employment action against a medical marijuana user is justifiable solely because marijuana is categorized as an illegal controlled substance under federal law
    • Courts may increasingly look upon “the use and possession of medically prescribed marijuana by a qualifying patient as lawful” as the use and possession of any other prescribed medication
    • State law handicap or disability discrimination claims may apply to medical marijuana users
    • Employers should engage in the “interactive process” with medical marijuana users to determine if they can perform essential job functions with a reasonable accommodation
  5. Comp coverage for medical marijuana dispensaries uncertainThe conflict between federal and state laws on marijuana means that individual insurers are using their business and legal judgment in deciding whether to provide services to the marijuana industry. Hawaii’s largest workers’ compensation insurer, Hawaii Employers’ Mutual Insurance Co. (HEMIC), recently announced that it is canceling insurance policies for seven medical marijuana dispensaries that were slated to open this summer. In its statement, it noted that legal opinions clearly acknowledge that HEMIC and its board of directors have potential exposure for criminal liability based on federal law applicable to marijuana businesses.While many major carriers have provided coverage in other states, there is more uncertainty under the new presidential administration. On the other hand, it is a $6.5 billion dollar business and legitimate employers can be an attractive market for insurers.
  6. New information is emergingThe federal government’s stance that marijuana is an illegal substance has stalled research on its effectiveness, side effects, dosage, and so on. The first large study to directly compare medical marijuana to an opioid drug is beginning at the University of Colorado, Denver. The grant for this study is part of $9 million awarded by the state for trial purposes, funded in part by tax money from marijuana sales.A recent study by the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI) showed a correlation between marijuana use and traffic accidents. Claims frequency in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon, the states to first legalize recreational marijuana, was 3% higher than the controlled states that had not legalized marijuana. The HLDI has also begun a large-scale study in Oregon to assess how legalized marijuana use may be changing the risk of crashes with injuries.

There’s no easy answer for employers trying to respond to the increase in marijuana use and be compliant with the law. While the use of medical marijuana is still in its infancy, it’s important to recognize that if a doctor concludes medical marijuana is the most effective treatment for an employee’s debilitating condition, an interactive process, including an exception to an employer’s drug policy, may be warranted. Staying informed, updating and monitoring drug policies, educating employees on how it can impair judgment and motor skills, developing policies based on the employee base, and consistent hiring and disciplinary treatment can help ensure that they have a safe and productive workforce.

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

Legal Corner

ADA
Part-time schedule not required when the essential duties of the job cannot be performed

In Green v. BakeMark USA LLC, 6th Cir., the manager had been granted several leaves for cancer surgery and subsequent complications and returned with hour restrictions for a limited time. Shortly after returning to full duty and working a 24-hr shift, he collapsed and his doctor again issued work restrictions. At the employee’s request, the company provided information on the hours he was expected to work to the treating physician. It also attempted to reach the employee by phone and email, but received no response, which led to mediation.

At mediation, the employee, in effect, requested an indefinite leave of absence. The company terminated the employee who filed several claims under the ADA. A federal district court granted summary judgment in favor of BakeMark and on appeal, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed dismissal.

Based on witness testimony and the job description for the position, the appeals court noted anything less than full-time hours would fundamentally alter the position, which is not required by the ADA. While part-time or flextime schedules can be a reasonable accommodation, they are not required when the essential duties of the job cannot be performed within the restricted hours.

 

Workers’ Compensation
Supreme Court tightens rules on where injury lawsuits can be filed – United States

The U.S. Supreme Court tightened rules on where injury lawsuits may be filed, handing a victory to corporations in a case involving Texas-based BNSF Railway Co. In an 8-1 decision, the justices threw out a lower court decision in Montana allowing out-of-state residents to sue there over injuries that occurred anywhere in BNSF’s nationwide network. State courts cannot hear claims against companies when they are not based in the state or the alleged injuries did not occur there, the justices ruled. In effect this significantly limits the ability to bring claims in friendly courts.
Work Comp policy can be rescinded for misrepresentation – California

A Workers’ Compensation Appeals Court determined that an insurer has the right to retroactively rescind a workers’ compensation policy, even if a worker has already been injured. In this case, the employer’s application for coverage implied that its employees did not travel out of state, but an employee was injured out of state.

In Southern Insurance Co. vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB), EJ Distribution Corp. et al., EJ Distribution Corp.’s application indicated covered employees would not travel out of California or outside of a 200-miled radius. After the arbitrator found the policy could not be rescinded and the WCAB adopted the arbitrator’s report, Southern petitioned the court for a writ of review, which was granted.

“Contrary to the arbitrator’s ruling, a workers’ compensation insurance policy may be rescinded,” the court said in its ruling. “A recession is enforced by a civil action for relief based on recession or by asserting recession as a defense. Because the arbitrator and the appeals board did not address and determine whether rescission was a meritorious defense to the employee’s claim, we annul the appeals board’s decision and remand the case with directions to hear and determine whether the insurer was entitled to rescind, and did rescind, the policy.”
Court of Appeals allows apportionment to genetics – California

In City of Jackson v W.C.A.B., a police officer injured his neck and was diagnosed with cervical degenerative disc disease and cervical radiculopathy. A physician concluded that his injury was cumulative and caused by a combination of work and personal activities as well as a personal history of “heritability and genetics”, among other things.

After the neck surgery, the doctor changed the apportionment to 49 percent; saying that there was new evidence that showed genetics played a more significant role in cervical spine disability than previously thought, citing several studies. The WCAB did not agree, but the Court of Appeals noted employers are able to base apportionment on other factors such as a preexisting disability or the natural progression of a non-industrial condition. The Court determined that there was substantial medical evidence to justify the apportionment, since new medical studies showed that heritability had a role in about 75 percent of degenerative disc disease cases.
Injured employee gets lawn care but not home renovations for treatment – Florida

An employee was injured on the job, had a compensable spinal fusion surgery, after which she developed a dropped foot, and experienced balance issues and falls. She also suffered from depression. A Judge of Compensation Claims awarded her lawn care, home renovations, attendant care, a podiatrist, an AFO brace, and evaluation of the need for specialized shoes based on medical necessity.

The First District Court of Appeals upheld the award for lawn care because there was evidence that it would improve her depression and anxiety, both of which were compensable. The home care, podiatrist, AFO brace and specialized shoes were also upheld because the employer failed to contest their medical necessity in a timely manner. The home renovations proposed by a registered nurse, however, were denied. The court reasoned that while the orthopedic surgeon indicated that he agreed with some of the suggestions in a home assessment report completed by a registered nurse, the physician never identified which ones should be provided and the registered nurse was not qualified to establish the medical necessity.
Worker can request change in doctor even after discharge from medical treatment – Florida

In Dominguez v. Compass Group, the1st District Court of Appeals ruled that a worker was entitled to exercise her statutory right to a one-time change in physicians, even though her doctor had discharged her from care.
School employee due benefits for fall when senior prank day necessitates different parking location – Illinois

In Field v. Pinckneyville Community H.S. Dist. 101, a teacher was walking from her car to the building where she worked when she fell and fractured her lower leg. She was walking a much further distance than usual because vehicles blocked the entrances to the school parking lot as part of a senior prank day. The Workers’ Compensation Commission awarded the teacher permanent partial disability benefits based on 35 percent loss of use of the left leg and medical expenses of $80,791 for injuries. It noted the prank day is implicitly approved by the school administrators, and the blocking of the teachers from parking in their customary parking spaces is a known activity, therefore, the teacher was within the scope of her employment.
Chicago Bears pay over $12.5 million to settle comp claims – Illinois

According to an article in the Chicago Sun-Times, over the past 20 years the football team has spent nearly $12.5 million to settle worker compensation claims filed by 141 players. And the team it still grappling with 144 additional claims from 55 other players. The Chicago sports teams have been arguing that the state’s laws regarding wage differential payments create a financial burden.
Highest court restricts admissibility about immigration status – Indiana

The Supreme Court ruled that an injured worker could pursue a damage claim for his lost future earnings in the U.S. job market, even though his immigration status did “not allow him to be legally employed.” It also restricted the admissibility of evidence about his immigration status to the jury unless the preponderance of the evidence establishes that he is likely to be deported and that his future lost earnings would therefore be limited to what he could earn in his native Mexico. Escamilla v. Shiel Sexton Co.
EMT suspended for criminal charges due benefits – Massachusetts

In Brian Benoit v. City of Boston, an EMT suffered an ankle injury and one year later was indicted on charges relating to misuse of controlled substances intended for his emergency patients. The city refused to pay benefits citing a 1972 state law banning public-sector workers facing criminal charges from receiving compensation from a government agency. However, the court ruled unanimously that the benefits are not salary, but an insurance agreement between the injured worker and the insurer and benefits were due.

Request for work with a different employer in rehabilitation plan nixes termination of TTD benefits – Minnesota

In Gilbertson v. Williams Dingmann, LLC, an employee who had given her notice, was injured prior to her departure date. The employee’s rehabilitation plan stated that her vocational goal was to return to work, but with a different employer. Although her employer offered her the same position at the same pre-injury wage, with reasonable accommodations for her physical restrictions, it was not completely consistent with the rehab plan as required by law. The employer’s offer could not, under any circumstances, be consistent with that plan.
Teacher cannot sue school district for injuries incurred during student fight – Minnesota

There are three exceptions to Minnesota’s workers’ comp exclusive remedy provision, including an assault exception, an intentional act exception and a co-employee liability exception. In John Ekblad vs. Independent School District, a high school teacher also served as lunchroom supervisor for additional compensation. While his duties included intervening to break up fights if he could do so safely, he was not required to do so. He received workers’ comp benefits when he intervened in a fight and was injured.

He sued the school district, alleging negligence and negligent supervision. The assault exception covers injuries inflicted for personal reasons and he argued the students made references to his race, but the court found that racial animosity is insufficient to establish a personal connection. The court also ruled the intentional act exception did not apply because even if the district’s policies were substandard or ineffective, that did not establish a conscious and deliberate intent to inflict injury. Further, the co-employee liability exception did not apply because the duty to provide a safe workplace is a non-delegable duty held by the employer as part of workers’ comp law.
Employee’s death does not negate settlement agreement not yet approved by Commission – Mississippi

In Taylor v. Reliance Well Service, the Court of Appeals ruled that an employer must honor a $71,659.43 settlement for a comp case even though the worker died before the Workers’ Compensation Commission approved of the deal. The agreement was submitted to the commission for review on May 13, 2016, the employee was killed on May 16, and the Commission approved the settlement on May 18, assuming the employee was still alive. The company filed a motion to have the approval order vacated, which was initially granted.

Upon appeal, the court reversed noting Workers’ Compensation Law specifically provides that settlement agreements “shall not be made except when determined to be in the best interest of the injured worker” and therefore, the sole statutory basis for disapproval of a settlement is a finding that the settlement would not be in the best interest of the worker. The employee’s death wouldn’t affect the commission’s determination of this issue.
Eastern District refuses to approve post-award settlement, in direct conflict with the Western District – Missouri

In the Western District, cases have determined that the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission must sign off on a joint proposal to commute an award so long as it was not made as a result of undue influence or fraud, the employee understood his rights and benefits, and he voluntarily agreed to accept the terms of the agreement. In Andrew Dickemann v Costco Wholesale Corporation, the Eastern District says these criteria, derived from Missouri Revised Statutes Section 287.390.1, apply only when there is an unresolved claim for benefits.

If the worker has established his entitlement to an award, the Eastern District said the applicable Section is 287.530, which says that commutations are to be granted only in “unusual circumstances,” and it requires that the value of the commutation be equal to the present value of the future installments due to the employee. In this case, there was no evidence of “unusual circumstances” and the terms of the agreement did not provide a payment equal to the present value of the future benefits, therefore, the Labor and Industrial Relations Commission properly refused to authorize the deal. The Eastern District panel said it believed the case setting precedent in the Western District had been wrongly decided.

Liability for asbestos-related condition can not be apportioned – New York

In Matter of Manocchio v ABB Combustion Eng’g, the Workers’ Compensation Board appropriately refused to apportion liability for an employee’s asbestos-related disease despite some evidence that he had been exposed to asbestos at multiple employers over a long period of time. While a medical expert indicated that apportionment was appropriate in terms of exposure, the expert admitted that determining the exposure to asbestos at each employer was impossible. Therefore, the appellate court concluded there was no objective way to prove that the employee contracted pleural plaque while working for another employer, and could not be apportioned.
Employer stops negligence suit on labor law technicality – New York

In Robinson v. National Grid Energy Mgt. LLC, an electrical foreman’s negligence suit was thrown out after his employer argued that Labor Law § 240(1) did not require it to protect workers from electrical shock. The employee was installing wires for a company hired by T-Mobile, when he fell 12-15 feet to the ground from a faulty aerial bucket. Noting that the bucket was not equipped with the proper electrical protection and that the lift function on the truck was malfunctioning, he decided to climb down, but his foot became stuck in the part of the bucket typically covered by the electrical protection, and he slipped and fell.

When he sued, T-Mobile petitioned to dismiss the complaint, arguing the bucket was faulty because it did not provide adequate protection from electrical shock, not because it provided inadequate fall protection and that the Labor Law did not guarantee a protection from electrical shock. While a lower court dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the decision to exit the bucket had caused his fall, the Supreme Court of the State of New York’s 2nd Judicial Department Appellate Division disagreed, but dismissed the case based on T-Mobile’s reasoning regarding the Labor Law.
Protz decision does not automatically nullify IRE rating – Pennsylvania

In William Gillespie vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) (Aker Philadelphia Shipyard), the Commonwealth Court affirmed the decision of the WCAB, reversing the decision of the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ), who upheld the employee’s constitutional challenge to his impairment rating evaluation (IRE). The Commonwealth Court ruled that its 2015 decision in Protz v. WCAB (Derry Area School District) does not automatically allow injured workers who had their disability status converted through the impairment rating evaluation process to undo this change.

While the court’s decision in Protz declared the IRE rating standard unconstitutional, the court said workers who have already gone through the IRE process have 500 weeks to appeal the conversion of their disability status, and they need evidence of a full-body impairment above 50% to support their claim, which the employee did not provide. The court said it had already rejected the idea that the Protz decision invalidated all IREs performed using the fifth edition of the guides late last year, in the case Riley v. WCAB.
Lay testimony sufficient to prove exposure – Pennsylvania

In Kimberly Clark Corporation v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Bromley), the injured worker was an electrician who was diagnosed with metastatic bladder cancer in the summer of 2005, and died a year later. His widow filed a Fatal Claim Petition and relied upon the testimony of two co-workers who detailed the various chemicals and substances known to cause cancer that her husband worked with, as well as an oncologist, who explained that the bladder cancer developed due to the exposure to these carcinogens. This testimony was considered more credible than that presented by the “environmental manager” for the Employer’s plant and the insurance company’s expert physician. The Fatal Claim Petition was granted by the WCJ and upon appeal, affirmed by the Commonwealth Court.

One issue addressed by the Court was whether the death took place within 300 weeks of the “injury.” When viewed as a repetitive or cumulative trauma case, the date of the “injury” is the date of the last exposure to the harmful source; thus, the death did take place within that period.
Co-employee immunity protects unpaid volunteer – Wisconsin

In Fitzgerald v. Capezza, an employee of a catering company suffered injuries in a car accident while en route to a work site as a passenger in a truck driven by a volunteer for the catering company. The employee filed a workers’ compensation claim, which she eventually settled. About a year later, she filed a personal injury action against the volunteer and her automobile liability insurance carrier. The case went through several appeals, but all concurred that the unpaid volunteer for the catering company was still a co-employee. As long as she received something of value in exchange for her work, and she received food, lodging and free admission into events, the court said she would be a “paid” worker for purposes of Wisconsin comp law.

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

Things you should know

Opioid abuse rises with length of prescription

According to a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the risk of opioid abuse rises with lengthy prescriptions. If received a one-day prescription, 6% were still on opioids a year later; when prescribed for 8 days or more, this rises to 13.5%; when prescribed for 31 days or more, it increases to 29.9%.

Blacklisting rule repealed

President Trump repealed the so-called “blacklisting rule” that required federal contractors to disclose labor violations. The executive order had required employers bidding for federal contracts worth at least $500,000 to disclose any of 14 violations of workplace protections during the previous three years.

FMCSA will not reinstate overnight rest regulations for commercial drivers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) regulation that required CMV (Commercial Motor Vehicle) drivers to take breaks in the hopes of preventing driver fatigue has been suspended since 2014 so that further research could be done to understand the efficacy of the program. A study from the Department of Transportation found that stricter mandated breaks did not do much to reduce driver fatigue or improve safety. Thus, the rule will not come out of suspension.

Study reveals occupations with sleep deprived workers

If your industry is health care, food service, or transportation, your workers are probably not getting adequate sleep, according to a study published March 3 in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Workers who averaged fewer than seven hours of sleep per night were classified as having short sleep durations. Occupation groups that failed to average seven hours of sleep included:

  • Communications equipment operators: 58 percent
  • Rail transportation workers: 53 percent
  • Printing workers: 51 percent
  • Plant and system operators: 50 percent
  • Supervisors, food preparation and serving workers: 49 percent
  • Extraction workers: 45 percent
  • Nursing, psychiatric and home health aides: 43 %

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society recommend that adults 18 to 60 years old get at least seven hours of sleep every day. A lack of sleep can contribute to cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, and other health issues, as well as contribute to more injuries on the job.

NIOSH announces free health screenings for coal miners

A series of free, confidential health screenings will be available for coal miners as part of the NIOSH Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program. The first set of screenings will take place from March 26 to April 15 in coal mining regions throughout Alabama. The second set will occur from May 10 to May 31 throughout Indiana and Illinois. Finally, testing will take place from July 30 to Aug. 26 throughout Eastern Kentucky.

NIOSH updates mine hazard assessment software

Mine operators and workers now have access to updated hazard assessment software from NIOSH. According to the agency, EVADE 2.0 – short for Enhanced Video Analysis of Dust Exposures – offers a more comprehensive assessment of the hazards miners face by pulling together video footage and exposure data on dust, diesel and other gases, as well as sound levels.

Study: PT as effective as surgery for carpal tunnel

Physical therapy is as effective as surgery in treating carpal tunnel syndrome, according to a new study published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy. Researchers in Spain and the United States report that one year following treatment, patients with carpal tunnel syndrome who received physical therapy achieved results comparable to outcomes for patients who had surgery. Further, physical therapy patients saw faster improvements at the one-month mark than did patients treated surgically.

When hospital inspectors are watching, fewer patients die

A recent report in the New York Times cited a study in JAMA Internal Medicine which found death rates dropped when inspectors were onsite. In the non-inspection weeks, the average 30-day death rate was 7.21 percent. But during inspections, the rate fell to 7.03 percent. The difference was greater in teaching hospitals – 6.41 percent when the inspectors were absent, and 5.93 percent during survey weeks. While the difference may seem low, an absolute reduction of only 0.39 percent in the death rate would mean more than 3,500 fewer deaths per year.

Although the reasons for the effect are unclear, it was suggested when docs are being monitored, diligence ramps up.

Wearing eye protection can prevent 90 percent of work-related eye injuries, experts suggest

Ninety percent of on-the-job eye injuries could be avoided if workers wore eye protection, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO). AAO offers the following tips for avoiding workplace eyestrain or injury:

  • Wear protective eyewear appropriate for the type of hazard you may encounter
  • Position your computer monitor 25 inches away
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes, take a break by looking at an object 20 feet away for 20 seconds
  • Reduce glare on your cell phone or digital device
  • Adjust environmental lighting near your workstation

 

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

Legal Corner

Workers’ Compensation
Worker has right to obtain medical report from doctor of his choice – California

In Davis v. WCAB (City of Modesto), Davis filed two workers’ compensation claims stating his prostate cancer developed because of his exposure to carcinogens while working as a firefighter. A qualified medical examiner (QME) issued opinions that the cancer was not work-related and Davis then hired a doctor to review the reports, which were sent to the QME for review. The city protested that this violated the discovery process and the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) rescinded a judge’s order that had allowed the review.

Upon appeal, however, the WCAB filed a letter brief to the Court of Appeals, asking for review to be granted and for its decision to be vacated, since the decision had not addressed Labor Code Section 4605. Section 4605 says there is no limitation on the right of a worker to obtain a medical report, at his own expense, from the doctor of his choice. While the report cannot be “the sole basis of an award of compensation,” Section 4605 specifically allows a QME to address the report and respond to its contents.

Traveling worker denied benefits for fall in motel parking lot – Georgia

In Avrett Plumbing Co. v. Castillo, an hourly employee lived in Atlanta, but his job required him to work in Augusta. The company paid a weekly rate to provide him a hotel room and allowed him to use it on weekends at no cost. On a Sunday evening when returning from grocery shopping he tripped and fell in the parking lot, breaking his ankle. When he filed for workers’ comp, the company argued that the accident had not occurred during the course of employment, since it happened outside of normal work hours and the employee was engaged in activities unrelated to his job.

An administrative law judge disagreed and found the injury compensable under the “continuous employment” doctrine, because the employee was “required by his employment to live away from home while working.” The case went through several more appeals, and benefits were ultimately denied with the court finding the employee was there “merely as a personal convenience” (lack of money and transportation prevented travel to Atlanta) and that the errand was for the sole benefit of the employee.

Willful misconduct may bar comp benefits – Georgia

An employee who disobeys an employer’s instructions and acts in a dangerous fashion may not be entitled to workers’ compensation benefits, the Supreme Court ruled. Chandler Telecom v. Burdette revolved around the question of willful misconduct. A cellphone tower employee sustained serious injuries attempting a “controlled descent” from a tower, even though a supervisor ordered him not to attempt the descent and to climb down and the crew’s lead tower repeatedly protested his actions.

The Board of Workers’ Compensation concluded the employee could not receive comp benefits because he engaged in willful misconduct by defying his supervisor’s instructions, a decision that was affirmed by a Superior Court. However, the Court of Appeals reversed, saying his actions did not constitute willful misconduct because his actions were not of a “quasi criminal nature…”

The Supreme Court found that the appellate court erred in its ruling, noting the proper interpretation of a 1993 decision defining willful misconduct is “an intentional and deliberate action done either with the knowledge that it is likely to result in serious injury, or with a wanton and reckless disregard of its probable consequences.” The Supreme Court said it did not have enough information to make a determination about whether willful misconduct had occurred. It remanded the case to the Board of Workers’ Compensation for further fact-finding.

Worker killed by exploding shell can only claim comp – Illinois

An employee was killed by the explosion of a live mortar shell that had been transferred from the U.S. Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California to the Totall Metal Recycling’s (TMR) facility in Granite City. The lawsuit alleged the employer acted intentionally in transporting dangerous materials, but not that the company acted intentionally in injuring the employee. As such, the judge noted any allegation of TMR’s intent to injure the employee would fly in the face of the complaint, which alleges a claim of negligence. Thus, the exclusive remedy of workers’ comp barred the wrongful death claim. Muenstermann v. United States

Exclusive remedy bars negligence suit for borrowed worker – Illinois

An employee of a temporary staffing agency was assigned to work for Lindoo Installations Inc. and suffered a partial amputation of his right index finger when it was trapped between a bundle of shelving and a forklift. He filed for workers’ comp with the staffing agency and filed a negligence claim against Lindoo. While the trial court granted Lindoo’s motion for summary judgment under the exclusive remedy provision, the employee appealed arguing that the staffing agency’s branch manager periodically checked in.

The appeals court affirmed the decision, noting Lindoo met several factors that determine a borrowed employee relationship and qualified as a borrowing employer because it had the right to direct and control the employee’s work. TerranceFalge v. Lindoo Installations Inc.

Undocumented worker due benefits – Kansas

In Mera-Hernandez v. U.S.D. 233, the court found the injuries suffered by an undocumented school custodian were compensable even though she used a false name and submitted falsified documents to the school district when she was hired. The Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals ruling that her immigration status does not dispute the work she performed for the school district and she fits the broad definition of employee under the law.

Clarifying Schoemehl window, court awards widow comp benefits – Missouri

For a very brief time, Missouri espoused a rule, known as the “Schoemehl doctrine,” that allowed for a permanently and totally disabled worker’s weekly benefits to be passed on to his dependents upon his death. The doctrine is limited to claims that were in existence as of January 2007, the date of the Supreme Court’s decision in Schoemehl v. Treasurer, and had not yet been fully resolved by June 2008, when the legislature then abrogated the doctrine.

In Ogden v. Conagra Foods, Ogden suffered serious injuries to his skull and spine in a 2001 motor vehicle accident and collected more than $2.4 million in benefits until his death in 2014. In 2009, the Ogden’s attorney filed a Form 21 Claim for Compensation for the employee and his wife. After Ogden died, his wife demanded payment on her claim for Schoemehl benefits.

The Industrial Commission determined she was entitled to payment, and Conagra appealed. The Court of Appeals approved benefits, explaining it didn’t matter that the wife’s claim for Schoemehl benefits wasn’t filed within the window of January 2007 to June 2008 because the claim was open and active during this time.

 

Credibility of doctors’ conflicting testimony weighed in appeal – Nebraska

In Hintz v. Farmers Cooperative Association, a worker was injured when a tire exploded, but he did not seek medical care and returned to work after a day-and-a-half absence. About three weeks after the accident, he tripped on the stairs at home and sought medical attention, which revealed a labral tear and other problems with his hip. His physician took him off work and performed surgery, and Farmers’ Cooperative terminated him after several months’ absence.

The worker filed a workers’ comp claim, and his physician testified although the worker had given inconsistent accounts about whether the hip injury was caused by the explosion at work or the trip down the stairs, when he performed surgery he observed a serious labral tear that seemed more likely to have been caused by the workplace explosion. An IME disagreed, testifying the injury was more likely caused by the fall down the stairs.

The Workers’ Compensation Court denied the claim, finding the IME’s testimony to be more reliable, but the Court of Appeals overturned, noting the treating physician had personally seen the extent of the injury during surgery.

Country club worker can proceed with lawsuit after general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club – New York

A country club employee whose left testicle was surgically removed after the club’s general manager struck him in the groin with a golf club is entitled to sue for damages beyond workers’ compensation benefits ruled an appellate court. The locker-room attendant was observing the assembly of golf clubs in the pro shop when the general manager entered and picked up a golf club shaft and struck him in the testicle, then left the room laughing.

The employee and his wife sued the general manager, who sought dismissal of the case based on workers’ comp exclusive remedy. The Court concluded that questions of fact existed as to whether the general manager acted in a ‘grossly negligent and/or reckless’ manner when he swung the golf club shaft and struck the employee and whether the country club condoned the action, thus the civil case can proceed. Montgomery v. Hackenburg.

Blackout caused by non-work conditions does not prohibit benefits – New York

In Nuclear Diagnostic Products, 116 NYWCLR 211, the New York Workers’ Compensation Board awarded benefits to a driver, who crashed his work vehicle after losing consciousness. The driver reported that he started coughing due to an asthmatic reaction to a new air freshener in his house and lost control of the car. The Board explained that since the driver’s accident occurred in the course of his employment he was entitled to a presumption that the accident arose out of his employment and that the driving of the employer’s vehicle was an added risk of employment.

Severe disability from Legionnaires’ Disease compensable – Pennsylvania

An employee of Nestle’s New Jersey office did most of his work in Pennsylvania performing maintenance on beverage machines. He fell ill, was hospitalized, lapsed into a coma, and was diagnosed with Legionnaires’ Disease. The illness left him wheelchair-bound, affected his speech, and the treatment he received may have caused brain damage. Nestle denied the allegations that he contracted the disease while working on fountain and soda drink machines that contained contaminated water, and argued the disease was not a result of work-related exposure. After testimony from a number of personal witnesses and medical experts, a workers’ comp judge determined that the employee was temporarily totally disabled and entitled to workers’ comp benefits. The Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board and the Commonwealth Court affirmed. Nestle USA Inc./Vitality vs. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board

Seasonal worker difficult to prove – Pennsylvania

Two recent decisions of the Commonwealth Court illustrate how difficult it is for an employer to establish that a worker is a seasonal employee. While there is a specific formula for calculating the average wage when a worker is engaged in an “exclusively seasonal” occupation, the law does not provide a definition for the term. The controlling standard comes from a 1927 Supreme Court case which declared seasonal occupations are “those vocations which cannot, from their very nature, be continuous or carried on throughout the year, but only during fixed portions of it.”

In Toigo Orchards v. WCAB (Gaffney), a tractor driver who was hired for a single apple harvest doesn’t fall within the “exclusively seasonal” category. The argument was that the injured employee was “itinerant agricultural labor,” a tractor driver, and that short-term employment is not synonymous with seasonal work. Had he been treated as a seasonal employee his weekly benefits would have been only $31.99, compared to $315.90 weekly, which he was awarded.

In Lidey v. WCAB (Tropical Amusements), a carnival ride fabricator wasn’t an “exclusively seasonal” employee, even though his employer did business only during the summer months. He was awarded $917 per week, based on his weekly wage of $2,000.

Philadelphia Eagles must pay workers’ comp and a penalty for failing to report player’s injury – Pennsylvania

A defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles ruptured his right Achilles tendon during the team’s training camp and underwent surgery and PT until he became a free agent. The team paid for his treatment and surgery and paid his regular salary until his contract expired, but failed to file workers’ comp documents. As a free agent, he rehabilitated at a private facility, which the team paid for, and ruptured his left Achilles tendon and the team paid for the surgery, but he paid for the rehabilitation. He filed for disability benefits and the team argued it should not be responsible for the second injury because it was not work related.

A workers’ compensation judge, and on appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board, ruled that the Eagles violated regulations by failing to report his first injury and awarded the claim petition as well as a 50 percent penalty to be paid by his employer on past-due compensation. The Eagles argued it was “not practically possible” to report every injury that occurs as a workers’ compensation claim as they see between 800 to 1,000 injuries during the season and practice. They file workers’ compensation claims only when players need treatment beyond what can be treated in the training facility, and they file NCPs on request.

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

Legal Corner

ADA
Jury verdict for needle-phobic pharmacist overturned

In Christopher Stevens v. Rite Aid Corp. et al. a federal appeals court overturned a $1.8 million jury verdict and ruled Rite-Aid did not violate the ADA when it terminated a pharmacist who was afraid of needles. When the company started requiring pharmacists to perform immunizations in 2011, the pharmacist, who had worked as a Rite Aid pharmacist and its predecessor pharmacies for 34 years, provided a doctor’s note that he suffered from trypanophobia (needle phobic) and would likely faint if he had to administer an injection. Shortly thereafter he was fired and filed a wrongful termination suit.

At trial, a U.S. District Court jury in Binghamton, New York, awarded him a total of $1.8 million. But on appeal, the court found that immunization injections were an essential job requirement for Rite Aid pharmacists at the time of Stevens’ termination and, therefore, Rite Aid did not violate the ADA.

Firing of bad-tempered bipolar employee did not violate ADA

In Michael Waggoner v. Carlex Glass America L.L.C., an employee of Nashville, Tennessee-based Carlex Glass America L.L.C., had been disciplined twice for violent outbursts while working for his plant’s previous owner. The second time he was suspended but allowed to return to work under a “last chance” agreement. After two more outbursts, he was terminated with the employer citing a work rule against using abusive language toward co-workers.

While he cited examples of other employees who had similar violations of the work rule, the court concluded that his outbursts may have posed a greater workplace safety threat and that the other employees did not have a history of infractions.

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

HR Tip: ABA’s summary of 2016 FMLA cases

Every February, the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Federal Labor Standards Legislation Committee publishes a comprehensive report of FMLA decisions handed down by the federal courts in the previous year. This handy report summarizes every FMLA decision from 2016 in a user-friendly manner.

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

Seven in ten employers impacted by employee prescription drug use

Seventy-one percent of U.S. employers say drug use among employees has impacted their business, but only 19% of them have comprehensive workplace drug policies in place, according to a survey by the National Safety Council (NSC). While 57% test their employees for drugs, only 41% screen for synthetic opioids – the kind of prescriptions usually found in medicines cabinets and increasingly available on the black market.

The types of incidents experienced in the workplace as the result of prescription drug use are: 39% absenteeism; 39% workers have been caught taking drugs while on the clock; 32% a positive drug test indicated use; 29% a worker had been found to be impaired or showed decreased work output; 29% a family member complained; 22% another employee complained to human resources; 15% an injury or near-miss occurred; and 14% an employee was caught selling drugs in the workplace.

“Employers must understand that the most dangerously misused drug today may be sitting in employees’ medicine cabinets,” Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the NSC, said in a statement. “Even when they are taken as prescribed, prescription drugs and opioids can impair workers and create hazards on the job.” Cognitive impairments and physical pain masked by prescription drugs can make employees engage in riskier behaviors and reduce response time.

 

What employers can do

Develop a drug-free workplace policy, including prescription drugs

Most employers have a drug-free workplace policy directed at illegal drugs and an alcohol abuse policy, but most don’t have a prescription drug policy. Since prescription drugs are legal, it’s been difficult to craft a policy, but many addictions begin with legal prescriptions. Even when taken as prescribed, they can impair workers and create hazards on the job.

The NSC provides a free Prescription Drug Employer Kit to help employers create prescription drug policies and manage opioid use at work. The kit recommends actions including:

  • Define the employee’s role in making the workplace safe. A drug-free workplace program (DFWP) should state what employees must do if they are prescribed medications that carry a warning label or may cause impairment. The employer can create a plan around not operating vehicles or machinery while the prescription is in use. The DFWP should also spell out the steps an employer will take if it suspects a worker is using certain medications without a prescription, in larger doses than prescribed, or more frequently than prescribed.
  • Add prescription drug testing to illicit drug testing. Working with legal counsel, the employer should decide if additional testing is warranted for pre-employment screening, or for pre-duty, periodic, at random, post-incident, reasonable suspicion, return-to-duty, or follow-up situations.
  • List the procedures or corrective actions the employer will follow when an employee is suspected of misusing prescription drugs or for an employee with confirmed prescription drug abuse.
  • Obtain legal advice. An attorney experienced in DFWP issues should review the policy before it’s finalized.
  • Train supervisory staff and educate employees. Educate managers and supervisors about prescription drug abuse and what to do if they suspect an employee has a problem. Training also is an underused tool that companies can use to make employees aware of the risks and signs of prescription drug misuse, along with company policies.
  • Review service coverage for behavioral health and/or employee assistance program (EAP) needs. Evaluate the behavioral health portions of health insurance policies and EAP contracts to ensure employees are covered for abuse of prescription drugs.

 

Work with insurers to cover alternative approaches

Hersman advised employers to work with their insurers to cover alternative therapies so that employees can avoid taking opioids or other addictive medications for chronic pain. Alternative therapies include acupuncture, guided imagery, chiropractic treatment, yoga, hypnosis, biofeedback, and others.

While 88 percent of survey respondents were interested in their health insurer covering alternative pain treatments, only 30 percent indicated they would not act on that interest by negotiating expanded coverage with insurers.

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

Five ways employers derail claims with poor medical choices

“An injured employee treated by the wrong medical provider is like a stripped down “to save money” fire policy with more exclusions than inclusions. Right doctor. Right time. Right treatment. Always.” – Preston Diamond, Institute of WorkComp Professionals

A poor choice in medical care can break a worker’s compensation case and result in significant higher premiums for several years. While the rules vary, in many states employers have the ability to direct injured employees to a doctor of the employer’s choice. Even if this is not possible, having a relationship with a competent occupational physician who understands your business and can develop confident relationships with employees will help insure your injured employees get the proper care.

Yet, many employers find the process of choosing physicians outside their expertise and defer the choice to insurers or employees. Here are five ways this leads to unnecessary higher claims costs:

  1. Apathetic commitment to Recovery-at-WorkWhile medical treatment guidelines have gained traction in many states, they are only mandatory in a few states and often permit discretion for the treating physician. As a result, there is significant variability in quality of care and outcomes among physicians. Moreover, today many doctors seek to treat workers’ comp injuries because it is more lucrative than healthcare.

    Given the option, employees will choose to go to their primary care doctor who, most likely, will grant their request. Want a few days off for work to rest? Why not grant it when it keeps the patient happy? Yet, those few days can cost the employer big bucks.

    When there is a strong Recovery-at-Work commitment and the injured worker returns to work before becoming eligible for wage benefits, claims are known as medical-only claims. In 39 states (ERA states), medical-only claims are reduced by 70% on the experience modification worksheet, and usually have minimal effect on the final Mod. On the other hand, claims that also include indemnity payments are known as lost-time claims and often have a significant impact on the Mod.

    This hypothetical example gives an idea of the impact on costs. A small claim ($2,791) that included indemnity had a .0360 impact on the Mod and increased the annual premium by $1,771. Since this increase affects the premium for three years, the employer will pay a total of $5,265! A second small claim ($3,230) was medical only and impacted the Mod by .0125, raising the annual premium by $615 and increasing the premium $1,845 over three years.

    It takes more than lip service for physicians to partner with employers effectively in a Recovery-At-Work program. Look for physicians who:

    • Know the state’s Workers’ Comp rules
    • Come and tour your facility to understand the requirements of the job
    • Develop a good understanding of your Recovery-at-Work program and recognize the value of work in the healing process as well as factors that can keep injured employees out of work longer, such as anxiety, family issues, financial issues, and so on
    • Follow best practice guidelines for each type of injury (typically Occupational Medicine doctors)
    • Have strong communication skills with all parties – employer, injured workers, and claims examiner
    • Engage the injured worker in thinking about recovery and what they can do, not what they can’t do
    • Have objective standards to measure outcomes, such as claims duration, total costs, percentage return to full duty within disability guidelines, litigation, recidivism, and patient satisfaction
    • Have strong capabilities, both in-house and referral network, so that wait times are minimized
    • Do not dispense drugs
    • Have a clear policy regarding opioids
  2. Limited or no focus on outcomesWhile there is a growing focus on developing outcome-based networks for workers’ compensation, fee schedules are the norm for controlling costs. When insurers point out “savings” below fee schedules, this can divert employers from focusing on the real issue – how much they are paying. Physicians and hospitals squeezed by the health care system look to maximize revenues from other sources and workers’ comp is one of the most vulnerable.

    The answer is to direct care to providers who have measures of quality and outcome and deliver the best value, by delivering consistently excellent outcomes and competitive pricing. Insurance adjusters often handle upwards of 250 claims at one time; it’s unlikely they are going to have the time to identify the best provider for each of their clients.

  3. Not a good fit for the employer or workforceWhile Occupational Medicine doctors are a good starting point, it makes sense to drill down further. From past claims employers know where their exposures are the greatest and should identify physicians with specific proficiencies needed for the injuries and hazards in their work setting. In addition, if the employer is in a regulated or hazardous industry, the physician must be familiar with regulatory compliance issues.

    There are other considerations as well. If you have a bilingual workforce, the provider staff, including medical staff, should be bilingual. Equally important, the provider must be able to balance patient advocacy with employer concerns. Injured workers will respond positively to a physician if they have trust and believe the physician is their advocate, thus accelerating the return to worker and reducing the likelihood of litigation.

  4. Poor representation in disputed casesContesting cases when it is suspected the injury is not work-related is never easy, particularly when it involves a cumulative trauma injury, pre-existing conditions, or stress. Failing to challenge cases when the injury cause is not work-related leads to paying unwarranted benefits and emboldens others to file similar claims. On the other hand, wrongly challenging injured workers needlessly drives litigation costs up and leads to morale and trust issues among the workforce.

    Doctors are trained to treat injuries; causation is a secondary concern. While many states do not require that medical opinions be expressed with absolute medical certainty, it is expected that opinions be more than mere speculation and there is a probability as to the cause that can be supported.

    A good medical expert will not only be well qualified, but must be able to write a good report that clearly explains their opinions. Understanding how a physician handles disputed cases is key to avoiding unnecessary litigation costs.

  5. Unnecessary use of emergency room servicesWhen injured workers use emergency room services, they are likely to be told to take time off and medical costs are likely to be much higher. The only time an injured employee should go to the emergency room is when there is a 911 emergency or when there are no other available treatment options. Emergency rooms are busy places and their primary task is to make sure people are not in imminent danger. There’s no time to consider Recovery-at-Work possibilities.

    Furthermore, there’s a higher possibility of an inaccurate diagnosis. More than one-third of reports from consulting physicians for orthopedic injuries in emergency rooms were inaccurate, including 30% of open fractures that were described as closed, according to findings detailed in AAOS Now , a publication of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. According to the author, musculoskeletal conditions, a common workers’ comp injury, are the most commonly missed injuries in emergency departments.

    Emergency departments rarely communicate with the employer, don’t usually set up follow-up visits or provide ongoing care, and common treatment plans often include rest and no work activity for days or weeks following an injury. All of which means delays, lost time, and added cost to the employer.

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

Takeaways from WCRI Annual Issues and Research Conference: worker outcomes, attorney involvement

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Keys to improving worker outcomes

Worker outcome surveys are a key component of The Workers’ Compensation Research Institute’s (WCRI) work. An independent, not-for-profit research organization, it provides data and analysis aimed at improving workers’ compensation systems. Measuring workers’ access to care, satisfaction with care, return to functionality, recovery at work, and earning history, the surveys are designed to give injured workers a voice in the discussion of how workers’ compensation can be improved, as well as assess how they fare in the system.

Reading through the observations, it’s easy to think that’s obvious and simple; yet, similar issues have existed for several decades, indicating implementation is not as simple as it seems. According to Safety National Conference Chronicles, the observations include:

  • Among workers who had worst claim outcomes, 48% had a strong fear of being fired after a workplace injury. There may be real justification for concern or a more general lack of trust in the employer.
  • Those concerned about being fired from the workplace retain attorneys.
  • Back in the mid 1990s, a study of back injury cases in New Hampshire showed a strong correlation between prolonged disability and the injured worker feeling their supervisor was negative and unsupportive.
  • Some of the words used by claims adjusters and employers can have very negative impacts on the message. Words such as claimant, adjudication, pending investigation, etc., focus on conflict and the process, ignoring the person who actually had the claim.
  • Another study found that when the claims handler expressed empathy, engaged in active listening skills and took the time to explain benefits claim outcomes improved.
  • Simply asking the worker “do you feel you will be able to return to your regular job without restrictions in 4 weeks” is an excellent predictor of disability duration. If the injured worker says “no” they are usually correct.
  • If you do not have company policy and practices aligned with messaging, you will not get positive messaging from supervisors. Company culture starts at the top.
  • The medical providers and case managers also can have a significant impact on the claims outcomes.

Takeaway: Most employers understand that the initial response to an injury, continual and effective communication, and workplace satisfaction are critically important for positive claims outcomes. Yet, injured employees’ perception of their work environment and lack of communication with injured employees remain major drivers of “permanent disability.” If they feel their needs aren’t being taken into account or they are being treated unfairly, they are less likely to return to work and more likely to retain an attorney. It requires constant vigilance to be effective.

Attorney involvement

Injured workers in Illinois are more likely to lawyer up than any of 18 states studied by the WCRI, while only a small fraction of injured workers in Wisconsin and Texas had legal representation. Attorneys represented workers in 52% of Illinois claims with more than seven days of lost work time. New Jersey was a close second at 49%, with Georgia following at 41%, then California at 40% and North Carolina fifth at 38%.

Explaining the high rate of attorney involvement in Illinois, the researchers noted that the state bases permanent partial disability benefits on several factors in addition to physical impairment. It also may be more difficult in Illinois to terminate temporary disability benefits than in other states. Also, the difference between maximum permanent partial disability and temporary total disability benefits is much wider in Illinois than in other states. The maximum TD rate in Illinois is $1,362, while the maximum PPD rate is $775, providing an incentive for injured workers to keep their cases open.

On the other hand, workers had low legal representation in Wisconsin (13%),Texas (14%), Michigan (17%), and Indiana (18%). In Wisconsin, the lower attorney involvement is likely due to limits on lump sum settlements, and an administrative process for resolving disputes. In Texas, caps on attorney fees for both plaintiff and defense attorneys, the prohibition of lump sum settlements of claims, which is the main driver for attorney representation, and an efficient dispute resolution process that does not necessitate attorney involvement all contribute to reduced attorney involvement. The researchers concluded that a more self-executing system limiting settlements significantly reduces attorney involvement.

More insights to attorney involvement can be found in a 2010 study by WCRI, Avoiding Litigation: What Can Employers, Insurers, and State Workers’ Compensation Agencies Do?

The study found that workplace trust issues, fear of claim denial and injury severity are the main reasons for attorney representation in workers’ compensation claims. It’s important to point out that a simple delay in paying a medical bill or an erroneous interpretation of a communication is enough to stoke the worker’s fear that the claim was going to be denied, thus leading to attorney involvement. The most effective way to counteract this fear is through reassurance and the building of trust.

Takeaway: Treating injured employees with respect, clearly explaining the process, and making them feel confident that they will get the treatment they need and that their job is secure will help reduce uncertainty and fear.

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

Legal Corner

ADA

Case to watch: Do employers have to offer disabled employees reassignment to another job if there are more qualified candidates?

In December, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (covering Florida, Georgia, and Alabama) ruled in EEOC v. St. Joseph’s Hospital Inc. that the ADA “does not automatically mandate reassignment without competition.” The ruling conflicts with other appellate court decisions, and legal experts speculate that it is an issue likely to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital had a best-qualified applicant policy in place and the court found the ADA only requires that an employer allow the disabled employee to compete equally for a vacant position. The EEOC argued that the hospital violated the ADA by requiring the nurse to compete for a vacant position she was qualified to perform. The court stated, “[p]assing over the best-qualified applicants in favor of less-qualified ones is not a reasonable way to promote efficient or good performance.” Further “‘the ADA was never intended to turn nondiscrimination into discrimination’ against the non-disabled.”

The conflicting appellate court rulings on the issue means employers’ obligations will vary depending on the circuit in which they operate.

Broken arm can be considered disability

A U.S. District Court refused to dismiss a discrimination charge filed by a worker who was terminated after she continued to need accommodations for her broken arm, a work-related injury. She worked for Kingsport, Tennessee-based Eastman Chemical and tripped and fell and broke her arm, requiring two surgeries. The company put her on light-duty assignment but eventually terminated her arguing it could not accommodate her temporary activity restrictions on an ongoing basis because there were several essential job duties she could not perform. The worker filed suit under the ADA.

The court refused to dismiss her case noting, “pertinent inquiry is not whether plaintiff’s restrictions were labeled ‘temporary’ or ‘permanent’ or the precise length of time she was under restrictions, but whether she was essentially limited in a major life activity.”

 

FMLA

Failure to provide a fragrance-free work environment does not equate to a failure to provide a reasonable accommodation

In Alanis v. Metra, an employee began suffering from a variety of fragrance-sensitivity symptoms such as difficulty breathing and speaking after ten years on the job. She was seen by her employer’s medical provider who concluded that she could return to work but gave her 30 days to obtain a psychological clearance exam. A week later, she again experienced symptoms and claimed that she was unable to speak and could only communicate through text messages, in writing or by whispering and was determined to be “medically disqualified” from working.

She took FMLA leave and a few months later her treating physician released her to work. However, she had not had the psychological clearance exam and when she did she was diagnosed as having a fragrance sensitivity, but was allowed to return to work a few months later.

The company made every effort to accommodate her requests for accommodation, which included flexible work hours, a modified dress code, limitation on extended talking, periodic rest breaks, self-paced work-load, and efforts to create a fragrance-free workplace. But she was not satisfied and filed suit, alleging discrimination based on the fact that she was Hispanic and retaliated against because of her disability.

The District Court for the Northern District of Illinois found that there was no evidence of discrimination or retaliation because no adverse employment action was taken. Furthermore, the Court found that the company had gone above and beyond to grant her requests for accommodation, specifically noting the changes made to reduce the existence of odors in the workplace.

Workers’ Compensation

Court supports DWC action suspending providers linked to fraudulent activities from workers’ comp system – California

Chiropractor Michael Barri, his company, Tri-Star Medical Group, and a newly formed nonprofit called the Coalition for Sensible Workers’ Compensation Reforms, filed a constitutional challenge seeking a peremptory or alternative writ of mandate blocking the state from suspending providers from the workers’ comp system and staying their medical liens when the providers are linked to fraudulent activities. Barri pled guilty to receiving illegal kickbacks to refer patients to Pacific Hospital during the spinal surgery kickback scheme.

The First District Court of Appeal took only two days in rejecting the request. The Division of Workers’ Compensation is moving to suspend providers and stay liens under new authority granted to it by the passage last year of SB 1160 and AB 1244.

EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues should be considered – Florida

In Hillsborough County School Board v. Kubik, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that a Judge of Compensation Claims erred in refusing to consider the opinion of an expert medical advisor (EMA) as to the cause of a worker’s need for medical treatment, and in denying the worker temporary total disability benefits. While the EMA had not been asked to evaluate the major contribution cause of the need for ongoing treatment, the court noted an EMA’s opinion that goes beyond the scope of the issues is admissible but not afforded a presumption of correctness.

Former Congressman collecting $100,000 annually in workers’ comp for bipolar disorder – Illinois

According to the Chicago Tribune, former U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., who was convicted of looting thousands of dollars from his campaign fund, is receiving a little more than $100,000 in worker’s compensation payments. Quoting Chicago attorney Barry Schatz, who is representing Jackson in a divorce proceeding, the article notes that the benefits are temporary total disability for bipolar disorder and depression.

The Federal Employees’ Compensation Act gives workers’ compensation benefits for disability “due to personal injury or disease sustained while in the performance of duty,” the Labor Department said. An employment lawyer speculated that Congressman Jackson’s attorneys convinced the government that his bipolar disorder was created by the rigors of being a member of Congress,

Inadequate urine sample did not constitute drug test refusal – Kansas

An employee who was struck in the left arm by an object while grinding a piece of metal was treated at an emergency room and returned to his employer to submit a post-injury urine sample. However, he did not provide enough urine to complete the test and the test administrator threw it away.

Lower courts found that the employee forfeited his benefits by failing to complete the drug test, however the appeals court disagreed. Kansas workers’ comp law says that “refusal to submit to a chemical test at the request of the employer shall result in the forfeiture of” workers’ comp benefits if the employer “had sufficient cause to suspect the use of alcohol or drugs by the claimant or if the employer’s policy clearly authorizes post-injury testing.” The court found no evidence that the employee had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the accident and had volunteered to take a drug test while he was at the hospital. Kelley v. Aldine Indep. Sch. Dist., 2017 Tex. App. LEXIS 829 (Jan. 31, 2017)

Psychologist’s testimony valid in workers’ comp denial – Minnesota

In Gianotti v. I.S.D. 152, A16-0629, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Workers’ Compensation Court of Appeals (WCCA) that the opinion of a psychologist was inadequate to support the denial of a worker’s claim for mental conditions allegedly caused by a concussion and post-concussive syndrome. The employee worked as a school bus monitor and fell and hit her head when the bus stopped short unexpectedly. Medical tests did not reveal a concussion, but she continued to complain of headaches, confusion, and memory problems and eventually sought psychiatric treatment.

While a judge denied the claim for a variety of emotional and psychological conditions, the WCCA questioned the competence of the psychologist as an expert witness, an issue that was not raised on appeal, and awarded benefits. The Supreme Court overturned this ruling noting the scope of the jurisdiction of the WCCA is limited to the issues raised by parties in their notices of appeal and that the psychologist’s opinion had as solid a factual foundation as any other expert in this case.

 

Failure to find work does not mean unemployable – Mississippi

The employee was a grinder and injured his right hand. Following an operation, he was released to work with restrictions, which did not allow him to work as a grinder. He performed largely janitorial and maintenance duties, but at one point was asked to operate a forklift. This irritated the hand and his physician advised him not to do so. When he was asked again, he refused to do so, and was placed on leave and given three days to obtain a written work restriction.

When he did not produce the work restriction, he was fired for insubordination. He filed a petition seeking a higher permanent medical impairment and eventually received a 50% loss rating, which he argued was too low given his permanent work restrictions. However, the Court of Appeals found that he was able to do other substantial job duties and had worked for almost a year after he was declared to have reached maximum medical improvement. Although he had been unsuccessful in finding another job after he was let go, this did not mean that he was unemployable. Harold Hathorn v. ESCO Corporation

Worker fired for failing to report medical only claim can collect unemployment – Mississippi

Although most states protect workers once they are hired from being fired if they file a comp claim, Mississippi does not. In Bedford Care Center of Marion v. Nicholson, the question for the Court of Appeals was whether unemployment benefits are available to a worker who was fired for having misrepresented her claims history. In a previous job, the worker received medical care for her injury in the hospital emergency room, but no indemnity benefits and she argued she did not realize medical benefits were workers’ comp.

While lower courts found she was fired for misconduct and not entitled to unemployment benefits, the Court of Appeals concluded that her inaccurate answers did not rise to the level of “willful and wanton” misconduct necessary to forfeit her entitlement to unemployment benefits.

Employee may sue colleague for work accident – Missouri

A restaurant worker climbed an A-frame ladder into a lofted space at the restaurant and while she was working there, a coworker removed the ladder. The coworker returned the ladder, but did not fully open and lock it. The ladder collapsed and the worker fell and injured her hand, elbow, and shoulder.

While the St. Louis County Circuit Court dismissed a negligence lawsuit, a three-judge panel of the appellate court disagreed, noting that a 2005 amendment to Missouri’s workers comp law “only gives employers immunity against tort claims for work-related injuries and does not afford such immunity to co-employees.”

Suicide bars survivor benefits – Nebraska

A woman who overdosed on drugs prescribed in connection with a workplace injury is not eligible for workers’ compensation survivor benefits, a state appeals court ruled. For five years, she was taking the opioids oxycodone and methadone, along with the sedative Xanax. Shortly before her death, she was told she would lose custody of her daughter and she no longer could live with relatives. She was overheard saying, “I just as well end it all.”

The trial court ruled that the overdose constituted “willful negligence and thus barred any recovery of benefits,” and the Court of Appeals affirmed. Michael B. v. Northfield Retirement Communities

Medical marijuana reimbursement required for comp claim – New Jersey

In Watson v. 84 Lumber, a New Jersey administrative law judge ordered Beaumont, California-based 84 Lumber Co. to reimburse one of its injured workers for medical marijuana prescribed for neuropathic pain in his left hand after an injury suffered while using a power saw at a lumber plant. The medical marijuana was being used to help wean the worker off of opioids. This is a division level case, so this decision is not binding on other New Jersey courts.

Other states that have allowed comp payments for medical marijuana include New Mexico, Maine, Connecticut and Minnesota. In most of these cases, physicians only recommended marijuana after other treatment regimens for chronic pain were attempted without success.

Cautious language of medical expert dooms claim for stress-related stroke – New York

In Matter of Qualls v Bronx Dist. Attorney’s Office, 2017 N.Y. App. Div. LEXIS 409, a state appellate court affirmed the Workers’ Compensation Board’s determination that a worker did not sustain a causally related disability resulting from his stroke because his physician repeatedly used cautious and indeterminate language, such as stress “may have been” or “could’ve been a contributory factor.” While the court acknowledged that the law did not require that medical opinions be expressed with absolute or reasonable medical certainty, the expert must signify a probability as to the cause and his or her opinion must be supported by a rational basis.

“Last act” in employment contract key in determining workers’ comp jurisdiction – North Carolina

An Oklahoma-based union hall of a welder who lived in North Carolina sent her a notification to report to an assignment in Texas, where she was to undergo a drug test and complete forms when she arrived. The North Carolina Industrial Commission ruled it did not have jurisdiction to hear her injury claim since her injury occurred outside North Carolina and under North Carolina’s “last act” test, her employment contract was made in Texas, and not in North Carolina. Submission to the drug test was more than an administrative formality, had she not passed, she would not have been hired. Holmes v. Associated Pipe Line Contrs., 2017 N.C. App. LEXIS 52

Off-duty convenience store clerk due comp benefits – Pennsylvania

The Commonwealth Court panel has ruled that a convenience store clerk who is permanently disabled is eligible for workers’ compensation after being shot several times while sitting in his supervisor’s parked car outside of the store after the pair had just closed up shop. Earlier in the week, he had called the police on a shoplifter, whose relatives threatened retaliation, so his supervisor had been driving him home.

The Commonwealth Court panel upheld the decision of the workers’ compensation judge, saying that the shooting was retaliation-related. The court also said that the spot he was parked in constituted the employer’s property, at a location that was a reasonable means of access and egress to employer’s store, and he was within the course and scope of employment while he was in the car.

Exception to going and coming rule applies for sick employee – Pennsylvania

In Lutheran Senior Services Management Company v. Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (Miller), the Director of Maintenance for a nursing home had a serious motor vehicle accident while going into work. At times he was called in for emergencies and received “comp time.” On this particular day, he was sick and planned to call in, but his employer called that a security camera had malfunctioned and needed to be fixed and no one else was available to do so.

While the carrier denied the claim arguing that he was commuting, the Workers’ Compensation Judge (WCJ) granted the Claim Petition, noting “Claimant was sick on March 13, 2014, and except for the special need of the Employer to assure [that the] surveillance cameras became operative . . . Claimant would not have gone to work.” This would represent an exception to the “coming and going rule.” Upon appeal the Workers’ Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), affirmed the decision of the WCJ but felt the facts represented more “special circumstances” than a “special mission,” but, still met an exception to the “coming and going rule.” The Commonwealth Court affirmed.

Third party recovery limited to injuries caused by negligence – Pennsylvania

In Serrao v. WCAB (Ametek Inc.), the Commonwealth Court ruled that an employer is not entitled to recovery of the full amount of its comp lien from a worker’s settlement unless the employer can prove the third party was responsible for all of the worker’s compensable injuries. An employee, wearing protective overalls, suffered burns when a can of powder ignited and caused a flash fire. The employee filed a third party suit against the manufacturer of the coveralls and received a $2.7 million settlement, and the employer asserted a lien against the recovery for all of its costs related to the injury.

There was a dispute if the costs related to burns to his hands and head caused by the melting of his gloves, face shield and hood should be included. The case made its way to the Commonwealth Court that concluded an employer has the burden of proving its obligation to pay comp benefits was caused by the negligence of the third-party tortfeasor and that the tortfeasor’s payment of damages are for the same injuries for which the employer paid benefits.

How a carrier can exercise its subrogation rights – Pennsylvania

In The Hartford Insurance Group on behalf of Chunli Chen vs. Kafumba Kamara, Thrifty Car Rental, and Rental Car Finance Group, the court considered how a carrier could go after a culpable third party. A carrier wanting to exercise its subrogation rights cannot force the issue by bringing a third party action on its own. Chen was waiting to rent a car in the Thrifty Car rental parking lot when Kamara accidentally hit her with one of Thrifty’s rental vehicles. Through her employer’s workers’ comp, Hartford paid almost $60,000 in medical and wage benefits. The Hartford filed a tort action against Kamara and Thrifty, asserting their negligence was responsible for Chen’s injuries, but Chen had not assigned her cause of action to Hartford and was not a party to the lawsuit.

Although a judge dismissed Hartford’s complaint, the Superior Court ruled that the case could proceed. The court noted that the Hartford was not pursuing a subrogation claim on its own behalf – it was seeking to establish the defendants’ liability to Chen. Because the carrier also was not limiting its requested recovery to the value of its subrogation claim, the court reasoned that it was not impermissibly “splitting” the cause of action Chen would have had. It’s important for carriers to use the right language in the complaint to make it clear that it is bringing the employee’s suit.

In this case, Chen is cooperating with Hartford’s effort to obtain recovery, but did not want to pursue the claim on her own. Such action could be more difficult in cases where a recalcitrant employee does not want to cooperate.

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