How does your practice navigate unpredictable times? Beyond the challenges of the past year, dentists often face incidents they can’t anticipate or prevent. But they can be prepared and choose how they respond. In the event of an unanticipated work-related injury or illness, it means having a safety net in place. Workers’ compensation insurance isn’t simply the cost of doing business. It’s a source of critical protection and security for practice owners and their dental teams.
An accident on the job can happen at any time, even with staff members following best safety practices. Without workers’ compensation coverage, employees can file a lawsuit against the employer or dental practice, and practice owners could find themselves liable for the settlement.
Workers’ compensation insurance provides exclusive remedy for injured employees, meaning that under most circumstances, an employer cannot be sued for causing the injury or illness. As an employer, having workers’ compensation coverage is not only a legal requirement in most states, but it also offers peace of mind.
The employer’s role is to make sure their workers’ compensation carrier is able to offer the best possible protection if an employee is injured on the job. This includes reporting all work-related injuries — no matter how insignificant the injury or illness may seem — and reporting the incident within the required time frame.
Reporting every incident
In a case reported to The Dentists Insurance Company’s Risk Management Advice Line, an employee tripped and fell in the sterilization room. She began experiencing pain in her arm and believed the pain resulted from the side of her body hitting one of the counters during the fall. She immediately notified the dentist about the fall and the pain in her arm. The dentist advised the employee to take some over-the-counter pain reliever since there were no visible cuts or bruises on her arm.
The following day, the employee called the office to inform the dentist that she would not be coming into work that day and that she had made an appointment to see a doctor because the pain in her arm kept her up at night.
The dentist then contacted TDIC’s Advice Line to receive guidance on whether he should report the incident, although he did not believe it was a serious injury. He then told the risk management analyst that he thought the employee was being “dramatic” and he didn’t understand “why she was making a big deal” about what he considered to be a minor fall.
The analyst advised the dentist that it is his responsibility as the employer to provide necessary first aid treatment in the event of a work-related injury and report it to his workers’ compensation carrier, regardless of how insignificant the incident or injury may appear to him.
Workers’ compensation laws vary from state to state; however, employers are generally required to provide a workers’ compensation form to an employee within one business day of becoming aware of a work-related injury or illness. Visit the U.S. Department of Labor’s website for workers’ compensation laws specific to your state.
Understanding the reporting process
Once an employer is aware of a work-related injury, it is best practice to report it immediately to allow the workers’ compensation carrier to investigate the injury and determine liability.
As part of the reporting process, gather the facts of how the employee was injured, which body parts were injured and the types of injuries, such as a strain, puncture or laceration. This information plays a key role in the investigation of the employee’s claim and acceptance for workers’ compensation benefits. The insurance carrier or assigned third-party administrator will use this information, along with objective medical findings, to determine the compensability of a work-related injury.
In the event of an employee injury, dentists should contact their workers’ compensation carrier for an approved network of physicians to send the employee for treatment. TDIC advises against employees seeking treatment with their own health care provider for work-related injuries, as this could delay the claims process, the investigation of the claim and any benefits that the employee may be eligible to receive.
In many workplace injury cases, the employee may be ordered by the treating doctor to take leave from work; however, in some cases, the treating physician may release the employee back to work with restrictions. If an injured employee is released to return to work on modified duty, it is important that the dentist cooperates with the physician’s orders to help move along the claims process.
Accommodating modified duties
In a TDIC workers’ compensation claim, an employee slipped and fell in a pool of water from a water dispenser. The dentist reported the incident to her workers’ compensation carrier in a timely manner, but claimed that the injuries did not seem severe at the time the incident was reported.
The employee went to see a doctor for her injuries and was permitted to return to work with restrictions; however, the dentist was skeptical that the employee was not being truthful about her work restrictions and refused to let her return to work while she was undergoing treatment for her injuries. After two months of treatment, the employee was permitted to return to work without restrictions, but the dentist was still doubtful of the employee’s claim and would not let her return to the dental office.
Because of the dentist’s resistance, the employee sought legal representation and reported several additional injuries in the workers’ compensation claim, including mental stress. After extensive litigation, the claim was eventually settled and $23,000 was paid directly to the employee. In total, the claim cost over $100,000 to resolve.
If work restrictions are provided by the treating doctor and can be accommodated, it is best practice to allow an employee to return to modified work while they are healing from a work-related injury. Had the dentist cooperated and allowed the employee to return to work, the claim statistically should have only cost between $15,000 to $20,000 in total to resolve.
Reducing return-to-work risks
To facilitate a smooth return-to-work process, dentists should start by having a written policy in place that clearly states modified duties will be available to injured employees for the length of time they are not able to carry out their work duties as normal. Any discussions about an injured employee returning to work with restrictions should be documented in writing and stored in the employee’s file.
If appropriate and applicable, it may also be helpful to provide the treating physician with a description of the employee’s normal job duties prior to their injury. The physician may be able to review the list and pick several duties that the employee may still be able to perform while on modified duty and tell the employer which duties should have restrictions.
While the employee is on modified duty, the employer should continue engaging in open discussions with the employee about their current work restrictions as they change until the employee’s injury has resolved. Modified work duties should never be construed as punishment and should be beneficial to the productivity of the dental office and employee.
Every workers’ compensation claim varies, but with each claim, it is imperative that dentists report the injury to their insurance carrier as soon as possible, maintain contact with their carrier to better understand their role as an employer and facilitate open discussions with the employee to ensure a smooth claims process.
To better understand the regulations and handle the processes of a work-related injury:
Mishandling a work-related injury claim could lead to severe consequences, including state penalties, personal liability and loss of exclusive remedy. Practice owners who are unsure about their employer obligations should consult their insurance carrier to ensure they are following workers’ compensation laws.
TDIC’s Risk Management Advice Line is a benefit of CDA membership. Schedule a consultation with an experienced risk management analyst or call 800.733.0633. Reprinted with permission from the June 2021 issue of the CDA Journal.
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