Injury Prevention, Claims Handling of Older Workers Requires Creativity
"Organizations may find they want (or need) to retain older workers," said Eva LaBonte, risk and benefits analyst for Clean Water Services in Hillsboro, Ore. "Retaining loyal, experienced workers can have more benefits than drawbacks if you develop creative solutions to keep them healthy and productive."
LaBonte described the methods she uses to manage the risks of this ever-growing segment of the workforce. "The key is to examine those conditions and processes that may be overlooked when considering the risks of a younger workforce," she said.
Injury prevention. To help avoid injuries among older workers, LaBonte recommends employers start with succession planning, which she describes as a systematic approach for long-term objectives.
"Find a way to use older employees and keep them in your organization for tacit institutional knowledge," she said. "If there are other jobs . . . that relate to their current jobs, it's a way to transition them into less physical jobs but keep them in the organization and gainfully employed."
Additionally, companies can use common-sense solutions to the challenges of the aging body, such as those developed by the American Society of Safety Engineers.
"It's basic information that almost seems so obvious you can overlook it," LaBonte said.
Along with minor changes to workplaces must come a change in corporate culture to one of safety. It must be embraced from top management on down.
"Everyone knows to bend their knees when they lift, but do they actually do it," LaBonte said. "Make it part of the performance review where they're recognized not only for doing what they're supposed to do, but doing it safely."
Employers don't need to spend excessive amounts of money on programs to promote healthier lifestyles. LaBonte suggests developing a walking program, for example, as an inexpensive way to get employees exercising. Creating a healthy snack program is another tactic.
"We spent $250 and bought healthier foods, then found a mini refrigerator," she said. "Instead of getting a candy bar, they get an apple or a yogurt."
LaBonte says incentivizing workers with prizes also works wonders. She limits the dollar amount to $25.
"We had a group of workers who work in field operations and don't have computers. Seventy-eight percent of them took part in a fitness health questionnaire for the chance to win a free lunch for the group," she related. "A little competition can go a long way."
Handling the claims. A key aspect of working with an older population is to consider their thoughts and feelings, LaBonte said. Many who become injured won't understand and may be reluctant to deal with the complexities of the workers' comp system. LaBonte establishes an individual plan for every injured worker.
"Who are they? How long have they been there? What type of job have they had in the past and what job are they in now?" are pieces of information she seeks. "Look at each person and find out what is it about this person that will help get them through the process easier."
The answers to the questions help form the basis of communication -- a vital piece for dealing with injured older workers. "Explain the process and make sure they understand why a claim is denied or approved," she said.
LaBonte said just because the information about the workers' comp system is given to an older worker does not mean it will be read or understood. It's important to make sure they grasp the process and what their options are.
"Over the years I saw the reaction of what happens when you don't," she said. "I've seen a lot of negative comments about the organization and our department from claims being denied and not understanding why."
By explaining why things are happening in the workers' comp system, employees feel they are being heard. "It goes a long way to a relationship with the employees and their coworkers," she said.
For example, a worker who sustains a back strain but also has degenerative disk disease needs to understand that only the work-related strain will be covered by workers' comp. LaBonte said properly communicating in a way that the older injured worker understands is important.
"It shows you're not out to get people but you will deny claims where appropriate," she said. "It sends a message; we care about you but that doesn't necessarily mean accepting every claim that comes across."
Read more at the WorkersComp Forum homepage.
December 16, 2010
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