Sometimes the simplest of stories can be the most impactful. There was no better example of that than comments made during today’s opening session of the IAIABC 104thAnnual Conference. In fact, it was one of the most impressive opening statements I have ever witnessed at any such event.

The IAIABC (International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions) is being hosted this year by the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission, and therefore the responsibility for the opening welcome remarks fell to Virginia Chairman R. Ferrell Newman. His message was, in a word, eloquent. After generic remarks welcoming the attendees from 42 jurisdictions, he told a story that occurred during his waning days in private law practice. 

He received a call one day from a young and relatively inexperienced adjuster. They had a claim on their desk that involved a college student injured on a summer job. Working as a painter, he had been carrying a metal ladder across the lawn at the house they were working on when the ladder came in contact with an overhead electric wire. The adjuster’s question for Newman was, “should I pay for the father’s travel expenses” to accompany his son to a Traumatic Brain Injury unit in Florida. 

Newman told the audience that he was conflicted, for as a father he could sympathize with another father’s desire to be with his severely injured son. He spoke briefly of his own family and the importance they hold in his life, but then said he drew upon his lawyerly responsibilities to tell the young adjuster that he probably could make a strong defense in denying such payments. The adjuster responded by saying, “No, you don’t understand. I’m not asking what I can do, I am asking you what the right thing is to do?”

Newman continued by emphasizing the importance of our work, and boldly told the assembled that we are an industry that deals with humanity and the “voices that are not here.” His reference, of course, was to the injured who can often not speak for themselves and whose lives have been thrown into tumult. 

Clearly the right thing and the legally mandated thing are not always the same. Being obligated to do something and doing things without obligation are choices we can make; choices that can represent a critical difference in a workers’ recovery. 

This is an area that we confront on a regular basis. Recently I was part of a panel speaking on workplace violence. As the interaction with the audience progressed, we seemed to be getting wrapped up in our constant concern with compensability. Several scenarios regarding injuries related to workplace violence were tossed around, each with the question, “Would you be obligated to cover these injuries?” I interrupted that process with a simple question; I asked the attendees if they were ever injured in such an event, regardless of legal obligations, how many would want their employer to take care of them?  

The vast majority of these workers’ compensation professionals raised their hand. When it came down to doing what was required or doing what was right, for our own purposes anyway, we want the actions to be what’s right. It should not be any different for the employees we work with and represent.

If we really want to see positive outcomes in our industry, we need to start asking of ourselves “What can we do” versus “What must we do?” Perhaps the best solutions involve looking beyond the statutory requirements and considering the human requirements instead. Newman’s message was about doing the right thing over the required thing, and in the process restoring humanity to a noble profession; the restoration and recovery of a life unexpectedly injured.  

It was a story for a room of conference attendees, but a broader motivational message for the workers’ compensation industry.

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