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Injuries will rise, benefit integration grows
As the year 2000 unfolds, a number of significant trends will come to the fore in occupational health — trends that have been smoldering just beneath the surface for the past several years. These include:
• an increase in workplace injuries;
• a significant move toward integrated disability management;
• a more employee-friendly attitude on the part of employers.
Those are some of the predictions offered by medical experts at Industrial Health Care (IHC), of Windsor, CT. IHC is Connecticut’s largest provider of services for the prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation of work-related injuries.
"The amount of workplace injuries is at an all-time low and will start creeping up in 2000," predicts Jeffrey A. Berkman, MD, president and CEO of IHC. "In the 1980s, we saw 11 out of every 100 employees suffering injuries. That number is now at 7 out of 100. This can be attributed to better education and a job environment that has made workers unwilling to report minor injuries in fear that they may lose their jobs."
Why does Berkman foresee a reversal in this trend? "Now, businesses have downsized to the point where they are doing more with fewer workers than ever before. That stress and fatigue on workers will lead to an increase in injuries," he explains.
"We have cut the fat’ out of the system, and now we are looking at a push for more productivity due to downsizing," adds Michael Saffir, MD, medical director for IHC’s Stratford, CT, clinic. "We’re probably getting to the level where we’re getting as much as we can from the industrial athlete,’ and reaching the threshold where more injuries can occur."
In addition, Saffir theorizes, when downsizing was rampant, employees were likely to "keep their mouths shut about injuries" so as to not be a part of that downsizing. "Now, with a more competitive labor market, employees are no longer at such a great risk. Employers are hungry for employees."
Given current trends, he says, with workers continually being pushed to produce more, the reporting issue is going to present itself. "The recent ergonomics issues, for example, have come out because of the growing pressures on employees to work longer and harder," he notes. "The injury trend has come down in response to increased recognition; but if this pushing continues and it is not addressed ergonomically, we will have higher injury and reporting rates."
Another contributing factor, notes Saffir, is work force demographics. "Employees are aging, and we’re seeing a change in skill levels due to increased use of temporary workers," he notes. "This can also contribute to a greater number of injuries."
Employers get the message
Ironically, the same forces that will make employees more susceptible to injury will also make employers more concerned about taking care of their health, says Saffir. "Your work force is a resource, and employers are trying to optimize the productivity of that resource."
Adds Berkman: "Employers will get the message that the better they treat their employees, the healthier their work force will be," he says. "Companies have been making great strides over the past few years in areas like ergonomics and employee safety. In 2000, we’ll see the relationship between workers and their employers continue to improve. After all, when companies realize there is a financial benefit to keeping their employees happy and healthy, they will jump on the bandwagon."
Saffir sees communication improving, as well. "There will be more of an exchange of issues and answers [about health concerns]," he predicts. "Employers will be listening more closely to what employees identify as important issues and they will try to solve those problems. They will also provide employees with better information about what they’re doing to try to help. This, in turn, will make employees feel more committed to their company."
Wellness programming is a perfect example, says Saffir. "Employees understand that employees are very busy, they’re short on time, but that health is an important thing to them," he notes. "Providing wellness programming shows the employee his employer also is concerned about his health. Services like child care also benefit employer/employee relations."
Will employers be providing more of those services simply because they have to? "They’ll be doing it in part because of the tight labor market, but they’ll also do it because employees are a valuable resource," Saffir observes.
IDM beginning to take root
The year 2000 will see a significant increase in the popularity of integrated disability management, or IDM, Berkman says. "The idea of an employer offering health care to employees who are injured either on the job or off the job in hopes of getting them back to work sooner has shown some successes on the West Coast. I think over the next five years, we will see this idea spread nationwide, and you will see more companies appointing managers to head up such programs."
"The trend from the medical and insurance management standpoint is that the only reason [on-the-job and off-the-job injuries] have been divided is that our financial and legal systems are distinct; workers comp is state-mandated," explains Saffir. "But the bottom line is that the medical injuries are the same. If you hurt your back moving into a new apartment, you still have a back injury and you still can’t work — it’s a 24-7’ issue. If you can deal with the patient as a whole person, you’ll get better results, and insurers have come to realize that."
Berkman says the California IDM experiment’ has shown that in mid- to large-sized companies integrated disability management makes sense. Since it lowers disability costs by getting workers back to the job in some form of modified duty program, it has proven to be an attractive option to traditional occupational health care plans.
[For more information, contact: Jeffrey Berkman, IHC, 1060 Day Hill Road, Windsor, CT 06095. Telephone: (860) 688-4800.]