This past Thursday I spoke at the National Workers’ Compensation Defense Network Annual Seminar in Chicago. The presentation topic, “The Ethical Challenges of Anti-Engagement,” discussed, among other things, three types of injured workers that we see within the workers’ compensation industry. Those categories were The Advocate, The Adversary and The Addled. While stressing that not all injured workers will fit into these areas, I maintain that many possess some or all characteristics that would place them in one of those areas.

I’ve given this presentation a number of times this past year, but this one was especially poignant, primarily because I had arrived in Chicago directly from the Comp Laude® event in Huntington Beach, CA. It was there that I saw one of these classifications displayed in spectacular fashion. But before we delve into that, we should elaborate on what these categories are.

As I wrote in June of 2018, immediately after giving this presentation for the first time:

The “Advocate” is first and foremost a self-advocate. They are an injured worker who has come to terms with the realities of their situation. They understand that life may have changed; they own their injury and impairment. Ownership has nothing to do with accepting or assigning blame over the injury event, but rather acknowledging that they must work from “what is” rather than “what was.” They are focused on restoring normalcy and function to whatever level possible, and are actively engaged in their own care. They are advocates for their own recovery, and actively partner with the industry to recover for both themselves and their family.

The “Adversary,” thinks everything you say is a lie. They don’t trust you or the system. They question your motives, and doubt much of what they are told. They blame others for their situation. As the injury itself goes that blame may be completely accurate, yet their inability to accept their new reality and move on prevents them from participating in meaningful restoration. They resist, both passively and overtly, attempts to return to work or to restore function.

The “Addled,” are, in a word, befuddled. They are scared and confused. They are broken and depressed; helpless victims entrapped in a system that can devour their very essence. On the surface they are more cooperative than the Adversary, but their faith is absent. The phrase, “I’ll try, but I doubt it will work”, encapsulates the mental position of the Addled injured worker.

At Comp Laude®, there were no Adversary or Addled injured workers. But man, did they have some Advocates. In fact, they had a whole panel of them. And more.

The Injured Worker Panel is a highlight of Comp Laude®. No other workers’ compensation conference or event gives voice to the injured worker to share their stories and frustrations. The panel this year was by far the best we have seen. There was Jeremy, a New Mexico policeman who was paralyzed when his car rolled 12 times during a high-speed chase. They had Billy who lost both arms while trying to clear a jam in a drywall shredding machine. And there was Erin, who was severely injured when a semi-truck backed over her twice while she was on the job.

All were inspirational. All were Advocates, through and through. Officer Jerry has returned to the job in his Albuquerque area police force. He also makes himself available to injured first responders around the nation to help them through catastrophic injury. Billy is today a motivational speaker and safety advocate, speaking at both factories and events about his experience. Erin today owns her own home and is going back to school to earn a college degree.

While all three of these people were great contributors to the conversation, Erin was the one whose story needed most to be heard by the audience of workers’ compensation professionals in attendance. Initially paralyzed by her workplace accident, she became aware of special therapeutic braces that could help her recover some of the function of her legs. The insurance company refused to provide them, citing excessive cost. Her response was to settle her claim early and use the money for the specialized equipment. The end result was, using the equipment denied by the insurer, she has regained 95% of her leg function and can now walk with a cane. It was a hard lesson for many to hear, but one that needed to be said.

That failure is part of the message that we in the industry need to hear.

When asked how their injuries occurred, it was Billy who left the room silent for a moment. When he was describing how they tried to unjam the shredder, he told the room that “we didn’t use lock out/tag out.” He paused, and said, “We took a shortcut.” With the visual of a man possessing two prosthetic arms, you could hear a pin drop after he said that. Beyond that moment, Billy was upbeat and highly entertaining. Frankly, the guy was hilarious. While demonstrating his high-tech appendages, he made his hand twirl 360 degrees, while asking the audience, “How many of y’all can do that?” He also went on to tell the audience how the accident had made him a more appreciative and better person. It was an uplifting message.

The bottom line for all three of these workers is that they were people who accepted their situation, the “what is,” and owned the outcome for their better benefit. They were their own Advocates, and that is what is needed for the best possible results in these situations.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that other injured workers were present at Comp Laude® and they were equally impressive (they really should be honored as Recovering Workers, but that is a topic for another day). I sat with one during the awards ceremony and had dinner with him afterwards. A Los Angeles police officer who was a member of the departments gang unit, he was shot in the face just below the left eye by a suspect hiding in an attic. 5 years and 23 surgeries later (including the removal of bone from his hip to reconstruct his face) he is back on the job. His surgeons did such an incredible job with him that I had to ask him what the nature of his injury was. The only scar was the exit would under his chin. Amazing.

Still, his journey through comp was not without its fights and challenges. He is back where he is at largely because he had the internal tenacity to advocate for himself. While the system certainly did assist and provide resources, there were sticking points that did not have to be. That is what we need to take away from stories such as this.

If we can communicate in such a fashion as to inform and support newly injured workers, we can help build Advocates, rather than creating Adversaries or worse, Addled dependents. The message at Comp Laude® was clear. When it comes to Recovery, Advocates have it going on.

Now all we need is to create a bigger panel of Advocates.

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