Thursday, March 12, 2009

What's worrying workers' comp insurers? Part I

Recently, I was asked to present a 'global scan' on what is worrying workers' compensation insurers and occupational health regulators. Working in a small department in a medium sized statutory agency, I rely on a lot of published reports from a lot of sources. The following is a Top Issue Clusters list based on this reading:

  1. Psycho-social factors/Mental illness/ Stress/ Bullying/ Returning vets: The mind is often injured in the course of employment or in recovery but the harm is no less 'real' than a broken arm. This cluster highlights the growing awareness of pscyo-social issues as workplace factors. European and Australian sources were more likely to highlight these but North American jurisdictions are increasingly recognizing the role workplace stresses play in direct injury and indirect harm. Veterans returning from Afgahnistan, for example, may be suffering from unrecognized post traumatic stress that, when combined with yet another stresser in the worplace, may develop a servere reaction. Whether recognized by workers' compensation authorities or not, insurers and regulators are cleardly worried about this issue.

  2. Nanotechnology/Nanoparticles: Seven of the reports I surveyed for this presentation cited this cluster in their top issues. More and more nano-scale products and agents are being used in the workplace and surprisingly little is known about the potential health impacts. Several sources drew parallels to asbestos and how it was used for many years even after it was known there were going to be health impacts. Some ask, "Are nanoparticles the new asbestos"?

  3. Obesity: How is this work-related? Several references pointed out that the workforce is now populated with many individuals who are clinically obese and research shows that these individuals are more likely to be injured and, once injured, are likely to have longer recoveries, more complications and greater degrees of residual disability. Some jurisdictions are going so far as to add programs and initiatives more focussed on wellness as part of thier prevention strategies.

  4. Chemicals/Substance in processing/solvents/Asbestos: As with the special case of nanoparticles, concern over the use of other substances in production or processes (other than the actual production of such substances) was raised by at least five workers' compensation insurance-oriented reports. Who is tracking the agents and their health effects? And even if we are not sure of the effects, who is tracing the exposures now? We know with asbestos that we may see health effects fify years from now. Will employers with records of exposure be around in a half century?

  5. Aging/Demographics: The one presentation I have been asked to give more often than any other is on this topic and it was clearly 'top of mind' for many workers' compensation and prevention agencies. Even in the recession, the impact of structural demographic forces in the labour force are relentless. Young workers will enter the workforce, older ones will retire and some will die while in the labour force. These are facts and while some can modulate certain life events (when to start a family or retire) the demographic clock will continue to be a major factor in prevention strategy and workers' compensation cost control.

There are more issues worrying workers' compensation insurers and prevention agencies... and those are a topic for anther post.

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