New Jersey employers will be facing two important changes to the Workers Compensation system in the New Year. These changes will bring additional costs for employers (while one improves benefits to the injured worker as well) and one change will potentially impact hiring processes for employers.
NJ Work Comp benefits to increase by 10%
As noted in John Geaney’s NJ Work Comp blog, work comp benefits in New Jersey will be increasing by 10% in 2022. This increase impacts weekly payments to employees who are out on workers comp as well as impacting the overall payments for permanent disability for a claimant and increasing the lawyers fees that are paid. One thing to remember is that the increase in payments for permanency awards still happens even if the injured employee even if there was no impact to their wages.
Employers can work to proactively reduce increased workers compensation costs by using customized job descriptions that are up to date, objective and accurately reflect the minimum essential physical and postural demands of the job title. These job descriptions can be used for post-offer pre-employment physical abilities testing, to help guide physicians and physical therapists in rehabilitating an injured employee safely and efficiently, to help identify appropriate modified duty tasks to help return the employee to the workforce as they recover, and to make accurate comparisons of physical abilities as they relate to essential job demands during a Functional Capacity Evaluation.
Gov. Murphy signs A2617 providing preference to employees who have reached MMI
The additional change to NJ Worker’s Compensation occurred in September of this year when Governor Phil Murphy signed A2617 which provides injured workers who have reached MMI hiring preference when they can no longer return to the position in which they were injured. The law does not fully define how the practice of providing preference to these employees will be implemented. The law applies to employers with 50 or more employees.
However, the one area that is defined within the law is that the injured employee must be able to meet the essential functions of the position for which they are applying.
“Following a work-related injury, an employer shall provide a hiring preference to an employee who has reached maximum medical improvement (MMI) and is unable to return to the position at which the employee was previously employed for any existing, unfilled position offered by the employer for which the employee can perform the essential functions of the position.”
This new law adds additional importance for an employer to have accurate, objective, and up to date job descriptions for each job title within their organization. Job descriptions should accurately define the minimum essential physical and postural demands related to the essential tasks performed within a job title. The descriptions should be kept up to date and take into account changes in policies, procedures, and even the items utilized to perform tasks – we have seen that shortages of supplies and mitigation procedures have altered how job tasks are performed. If these changes have become permanent in nature, the job description should reflect those changes and not reflect how the job was performed several years ago.
NJ Ergonomics can help employers to better define their job descriptions with accurate and objective measurements of essential job tasks as measured onsite for an employer. We can assist with helping employers put together defensible post-offer pre-employment testing programs to help identify whether job candidates meet the essential physical and postural demands of the position for which they are being hired.
In a recent podcast, Gary Vaynerchuk talked about Return on Investment (ROI) and the fact that ROI isn’t necessarily driven by what is spent but “is predicated on how good you are at it”.
This is so important in the area of occupational health and safety. Often, companies will purchase equipment with the best of intentions in mind – make the job easier for the employees and reduce the potential risk of injuries. But what happens once the equipment is installed and the trainers leave? This is an issue more often than not, on initiatives large and small.
Several years ago, I was doing an ergonomic walkthrough at a large retail grocery store. Towards the end of the visit, we were standing near the check out lanes. As we were talking, I noticed that one cashier was fairly tall – a little over 6 feet – but the cashier next to him was an older woman who was just a little over 5 feet. A few minutes before, the safety manager had explained that they had purchased adjustable monitors for the cashiers to be able to see the items that had been rung up. As I was looking at these cashiers, I noticed that both had their monitors set to exactly the same height. Despite the best efforts of the employer to provide equipment to make the job easier and safer, the employees weren’t using it. They did not adjust the monitor heights.
While filling out consent forms for a fit for duty functional capacity evaluation, a recent claimant repositioned himself in a chair in the lobby of our office that allowed me to see his feet. I noticed that one foot was in a walking boot. This was an unexpected piece of information. As I asked him about the walking boot, I learned that he had been working modified duty in the boot which was for treatment for a significant medical issue related to his foot. Both the condition and the walking boot required a quick call to the employer who he had not told about the walking boot. This employer provides safety shoes for their employees as it is a safety requirement for the position. Due to the fact that the walking boot was black as were the issued safety shoes, nobody had noticed the walking boot. A quick routine check of PPE when supervisors meet with employees throughout the day/week would have resolved this issue which could have resulted in greater medical issues for the employee.
For any project, whether it is a safety initiative such as safety equipment or equipment modifications or programs such as post-offer pre-employment or return to work testing, it all comes down to how good you are the program that you are putting in place. This requires constantly paying attention to how the program is running. Are supervisors making sure that employees are following safety guidelines? Are you making sure that your post-offer physical ability testing or return to work programs are based on accurate job descriptions? When developing a new safety initiative, make sure that you include follow-up and oversight in your planning to ensure that you get the ROI that you are expecting.
** For those looking for the specific podcast, it is the December 4, 2019 episode entitled “You’re Not Going To Know Where To Start”
Recently, WorkersCompensation.com and Safety+Health Magazine ran two articles that provided interesting injury information that came from taking a deeper dive into reported injury data.
WorkersCompensation.com reported that injury rates in construction workers in Tennessee were higher for those on the job under two years. In both Tennessee and Ohio, injury rates for workers with less than 1 year of experience accounted for 47.5% and 45.6% of the total injuries, respectively. Workers with less than 6 months of experiences accounted for 37.1% and 33.6%, respectively. The article notes two important thoughts:
- Fingers and hand injuries were among the top 10 injured body parts – an issue that can be reduced with appropriate PPE
- Teaming up new, inexperienced workers with mentors to learn to recognize work hazards
Safety+Health took an interesting look at the effects of shift length and inexperience on the risk of injury to those working in the mining industry. They reported on data from a study by researchers at University of Illinois at Chicago that found that miners working shifts longer than 9 hours “were 32% more likely to suffer work-related fatalities and 73% more likely to be part of an incident that caused injuries to multiple miners.” Risk factors for injury for those working more than 9 hours included workers that had less than 2 years experience in the job as well as irregular work schedules. Among the suggestions to reduce the risks were fixed schedules and a recommendation into looking deeper into the effects of longer shifts on “fatigue and nutrition”.
One of the key things that we ask on our FCE intake paperwork is the amount of time that a claimant has been working in their current position. More often than not, many of those who have been sent to us for the functional capacity evaluation have less than 1 year in the position in which they were injured. Length of employment at time of injury is a data point that all employers should be monitoring. When trends appear such as in the two studies noted, employers need to take a look at hiring practices and new hire training practices. They may find that their hiring process should include a post-offer pre-employment test of physical abilities to ensure that new hire candidates meet the essential physical and postural demands of the position.
Looking at injury data (OSHA logs, loss run data, etc.) should be a part of the process of setting up a post-offer pre-employment process in conjunction with performing on-site measurements to create a customized job description of the essential postural and physical demands. The injury data may help to pinpoint job tasks that require a deeper look to determine why employees are getting injured. Is it an ergonomic issue? Is it an issue of strength? Is it an issue of better standard operating procedures?
One of our clients asked for our assistance in reviewing the injury data after initiating a post-offer pre-employment testing process for an ambulance transport service to determine the effectiveness of the program. We looked at data from 3 years prior to initiation of the process as well as 3 years after (we encourage employers to look at this more frequently). The initial review of the data indicated a minor drop in injuries after initiating the program (an overall drop of 6 injuries after initiating testing).
With only a small reduction in injuries, a deeper dive into the data was required. Several interesting variables were found during this deeper dive:
- The number of neck, shoulder, and lower back injuries decreased but injuries involving the hands and exposure injuries increased
- The number of employees decreased by 20% between the two periods
- The number of transports increased after testing when there were less employees increasing the amount of exposure opportunities to be injured
Taking into account the reduction in the number of employees and the increase in patients transported, there is a 26.8% reduction in injuries.
Taking the deeper dive into the data allows for a greater understanding of the mechanisms that may be driving the injuries that your employees are experiencing. Make the time to look at your OSHA logs to see if there are injury trends, look at the amount of time employed at time of injury to see if there are trends with your new employees, or take a look at your loss runs to see if certain departments have either a greater number of injuries or a greater amount of lost time compared to other departments. All of these become a starting point in reducing future injuries.