Tomorrow millions of people will sit down with family and friends, and gorge themselves on turkey, stuffing, potatoes, more stuffing, corn, green beans, cranberry sauce, bread, again with the stuffing, and pumpkin pie (which, if served correctly will have so much whipped cream on it as to render it completely unrecognizable). It will be an opportunity to give thanks for all we have in this world, along with the gratitude that when the meal is over, the friends and family will be going away. 

But for some in this world, particularly our world of workers’ compensation, that may not be the case. With all the attention the past several months being spent on the “National Conversation” over workers’ comp, I think that this holiday will also be a good time for reflection.

The facts do give us much to be thankful for. Although select “self-styled” injured workers’ advocates hate this statistic (they believe absolutely every single injured worker is sent to their doom by the system), WCRI tells us that 85% of injured workers exit their workers’ comp experience with a decent level of satisfaction. They will be able to sit down at Thanksgiving and enjoy their holiday in part due to the fact that, for them, the system worked. That is something we can certainly be happy and thankful for as well. But what of the other 15%?

Let’s look at the numbers a bit more. The latest Bureau of Labor Statistics, released just a few weeks ago, tell us that there are slightly more than 10,000 illnesses and occupational injuries reported in this nation every single day. That is about 6,000 less than when I started in this industry 17 years ago (something else to be thankful for). Extrapolating the WCRI statistics, that tells us that around 8,500 of those daily reports will get their benefits, including any medical treatment, and return to a functioning role in society. Many of these injuries are minor, and most of them will miss very little work, if any at all. The other 1,500 people injured on our fictitious single day will face much different outcomes. These are the points of reflections we should engage in.

The following is pure speculation, but I am comfortable placing these 1,500 into five separate categories.

Some are simply coping with a life altering injury, and discovering that the system designed to assist them was never a catch-all intended to compensate 100% of their losses, both real and perceived. They recover to whatever degree possible and move on with their lives, but it is unrealistic for us to expect happy marks on a survey from everyone who has encountered a negative event such as the ones they experience. 

Another group are the catastrophically injured, for which the system has responded but the realities of the injury prevent anything close to a normal recovery of any kind.

There are those whose anger and frustration has taken ownership of the situation, which has taken them to a place where recovery is not an option. Until they learn to accept the realities of their new condition and take ownership in their future, they will continue to decline. We should consider how we can help break that cycle of despair and dependency for these people.

There are those whose perception of their disability does not line up with the realities of their physical injury. All the medical literature tells us they should be getting better, yet they continue to decline. The underlying problem with many of these cases may well be largely between their ears. They may have poor coping skills or have faced previous trauma in their lives that is affecting the current situation. These are the psycho-social cases we should be looking at, but largely ignore in our current system.

And finally, there are those who have simply been screwed by the system. They may be facing inadequate benefit levels in their state, or are victims of the less than scrupulous that lurk in the peripheral regions of the industry. Whether it is due to incompetent or unethical claims handling, a surgeon rewarded for using inadequate or counterfeit parts, a lawyer whose single concern is a percentage of a big settlement, or any other professional acting with malfeasance, people in this group have been given a raw deal, and will have reasons not to be thankful tomorrow. How we single out and eliminate the bad actors in our industry that cause these problems is an issue of great concern. 

Yes, today, 10,000 people will be injured on the job. 8,500 of them will have positive outcomes, and for that we can take pride and be thankful. 1,500 of them, however, likely will not, and in this year of continued conversation and internal analysis, we should pause to reflect on where we can improve the system both for them and those who serve it.

I am reminded in this of a comment made by Peter Federko at a conference in Montana a few years ago. Federko, who is CEO of Saskatchewan’s Workers’ Compensation Board, was presenting his agency’s “Mission Zero” program, which was a Province wide safety awareness campaign. The goal was to reduce both occupational and non-occupational deaths to the number zero. Critics told him it was an unrealistic goal, as it was simply unattainable. They thought it should have a more realistic objective. They pointed out to him that if they could reduce the deaths to one a year, the “mission” would have failed, but the results would still be excellent. Federko’s response was beautiful; he said, “Yes, but who wants to be the one death?” 

We should be thankful tomorrow for all we have, and enjoy the day. Remember, however, that the future is uncertain. Someday a tragic accident in your life, or the life of a loved one, may threaten to take it all away. Reflect on the system we have, and vow to improve it where needed. After all, none of us know what the future holds in store. The recovery management system we build today may end up protecting your quality of life tomorrow.

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

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