Halfway into the 14th Annual National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference & Expo this past November, one event took top billing, and it was decidedly not on the conference-planning committee's agenda: Near the end of a prelunch keynote address, one attendee toppled out of his chair onto the floor and remained briefly unconscious as conference personnel called for emergency medical assistance.
The attendee, taken to a nearby Chicago hospital, suffered minor bumps from his fall. Fortunately, he was otherwise unharmed. He was released soon after. For those in a reflective mood, the episode served as a sobering reminder of why the conference exists: Workers' compensation injuries and illnesses do not discriminate--any one of us could easily become a name on a claims adjuster's file folder at any time.
The rest of the conference, while less dramatic, was no less memorable. Tried-and-true methodologies shared the spotlight with new ideas and technology, and attendees strode briskly from the expo hall to the educational forums and back, collecting knowledge (and a few show trinkets) to take back to the office and share with their employers and colleagues.
An extraordinary level of maturity marked the 2005 gathering of workers' comp professionals from around the country. Presenters drew from years of experience and success as they shared their knowledge in diverse sessions such as "Managing Psychiatric Return to Work," "Top 10 Don'ts During a Deposition," and "Getting the Best IMEs: Ways to Improve IME Requests and Examiner Selection."
Clearly, however, the industry is on the verge of its next stage of evolution, as new strategies were the main attraction in other presentations, including "Bionomics: A New Way to View Ergonomics," "Workplace Safety: Rethinking the Old Model" and "The Impact of EMPAQ."
EVOLVING WITH THE ADA
Legal and compliance issues took center stage for a portion of the conference. Sorting through the confusion surrounding the Americans with Disabilities Act was at the top of the agenda for many attendees. Keynote speaker Michael Lotito explained why, in his address, "The ADA and Workers' Compensation: Is the Dream Being Realized?"
The ADA has failed in three significant ways, according to San Francisco-based Lotito, who coordinates the Disability Management Practice Group at the law firm of Jackson Lewis LLP.
The ADA--signed into law 15 years ago to end discrimination against disabled people and allow them to lead productive, fulfilling lives--gives rights to more people than anticipated, while denying rights to people it was meant to protect. A second problem is that the ADA puts more obligations on employers than anticipated. The ADA's third failure--the law doesn't set national standards but instead weaves a "crazy quilt for employers," said Lotito, with other federal and state laws on workers' comp and disabilities.
"Clearly, there's a great deal of confusion with the statute," Lotito said. "This is a matter of grave concern."
Lotito provided more than enough absurd ADA suits to prove his point, such as Jim's story. Jim asked his employer for leave as a reasonable accommodation for depression. He returned to work after treatment and recovery only to discover that he had been fired for taking too much time off. In court, a judge found that his depression was only temporary, and thus not even a disability.
"As a result of getting better," Lotito said, "he loses."
Lotito also provided cases of ADA abuse, such as an instance involving a disk jockey in Detroit. Because of a perfume worn by her colleague, the DJ claimed, she had lost her voice, and her job. The jury awarded her $10.6 million.
"I could go on and on unfortunately," Lotito said.
Delving into the hows as well as the whys of the current ADA situation, Lotito--joined by Frank Alvarez, co-coordinator of the Disability Management Practice Group--also led an educational session on the subject, titled "How to Use Employee
Medical Information for Disability Management--Without Violating the ADA."
No one should dispute your right to medical privacy, said Lotito. Employers, though, have some rights to this information. Say you're a bus driver. Your employer needs to know if you have a medical condition that may put your passengers at risk. For any job, employers want to hire people that can effectively and safely perform a position.
But as Alvarez explained, the ADA is full of "it depends" answers to employers' particular cases. Employers, however, need hard and fast answers.
NO TIME FOR IDLING
All around the halls, the "phase that pays" at the 2005 NWCDC was, without question, "return-to-work." More employers than ever are recognizing the potential for reducing workers' comp costs with a well-coordinated return-to-work strategy. That left attendees on the hunt for advice on how to create or improve their programs.
Some useful advice came from Mandy J. Gamble and Donielle Harsh, consultants from the Job Accommodation Network in Morgantown, W.Va., in their session "Facilitating Return to Work Through Accommodation." Gamble acknowledged that while preventing disabling injuries is always the best approach, accidents still happen.
"Establishing an early return-to-work program will not only reduce worker' comp, medical and legal costs, it will also maintain your company's productivity levels," she said.
Gamble and Harsh said employers can accommodate employees returning from injuries by following a five-step process that includes the use of assistive technology. One key, according to Gamble: Monitor accommodations. "This is the step that many employers forget about," Harsh said. "Things can change. Once an accommodation has been identified and provided, it is important to monitor the accommodation to ensure its effectiveness. Make sure that your product or device is being maintained."
Attendees looking to fine-tune their programs got a boost from an interactive session called "How to Use the Web for Return to Work," led by Robert Wilson, president of WorkersCompensation.com, and Kathy Lella, vice president of sales for Return to Work America. Wilson and Lella exposed the audience members to various technologies that can lubricate the return-to-work process.
Many people already use the Internet to find useful workers' comp information, said Lella, and many states--such as Texas and Georgia--offer workers' comp Web sites with a wealth of great information. The Internet, however, is a two-way street, said Wilson, and can be used to share information as well as obtain it.
For example, virtual private networks and Web-enabled workrooms are password-protected Web sites where files can be moved and shared with people on the road. In the event that an insurance carrier's office is affected by a natural disaster, Lella explained, offices in other cities could access all of the files through their Web workroom.
Video conferencing is another way to work the Web to the advantage of your workers' comp program.
Wilson displayed a video of factory workers on the job to show how video can give a truer idea of job tasks than someone's written interpretation. Such a video can be put online, and employers can easily e-mail a link to all parties involved, including doctors. Video eliminates the guesswork.
E-mail can also be used as an ally in facilitating return-to-work programs, say Wilson and Lella, to distribute and document information at the same time, creating an electronic "paper trail."
Other suggested ways to use e-mail in your return-to-work program were:
-- Ticklers, or reminders, that can be set to prevent missing deadlines and remind you, for instance, to call the injured worker or a doctor.
-- Personal follow-ups with injured workers to make them still feel important.
-- Communications with case managers in the field.
Many of these technologies are not being used in the return-to-work process as they should be, said the speakers. But the session turned into a great chance to brainstorm about their possible uses in the industry.
Wilson wound down the information-packed session by reminding the audience that these are just ingredients, as one audience member put it, to making the return-to-work cake.
is associate editor of Risk & Insurance®.
January 1, 2006
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