Wednesday, October 14, 2009

What will drive the Future of Workers' Compensation?

Last week I was at the AWCBC Learning Symposium. The theme of the event was “Time Capsule” and I was asked to speak about the future of workers’ compensation.
My talk outlined three categories of forces that are driving change in workers’ compensation:

  • Factors that are substantially beyond our direct control like economic cycle, demographic shifts, and broad societal trends.
  • Public policy decisions that we do not necessarily control but which we may influence. This category includes the areas of who is covered, what is covered and the degree to which workers’ compensation and prevention are aligned and integrated.
  • Decision we make and direction we take that are substantially within our control.
The details of these forces and the analysis behind them are beyond the scope of this blog but there are some clear themes that emerge that may be summarized by the following points:

  1. Economic cycles, demographic shifts and societal changes will continue to impact workers’ compensation systems—outside our direct control but with predictable consequences. We need to take that step and have ready analysis of the effects of past recessions and expansions on investments, employment, injury volumes, injury rates, duration of disability, etc.
  2. The scope of coverage will trend toward universal coverage and greater prevention responsibilities—something we may anticipate and be involved in. In jurisdictions with less than 80% of the employed labour force covered by workers’ compensation laws, the trend will be toward greater inclusion within scope and the evidence of work-relatedness will increase in what is covered. Here workers’ compensation systems can play a vital role in identifying where coverage should be extended for the mutual advantage of workers, employers and the broader society.
  3. Occupational Diseases will drive our legislative, regulatory, policy and practice directions particularly in the area of
    • Stress, Psychological Injuries
    • Fatigue, human factors
    • New materials and processes
    • Old materials, new applications
    • New workplace relationships, participants
    • New zoonotic disease, new vectors
Based on this third point, Expansion of what and who is covered is likely.

I also extended my analysis to capture a other changes workers’ compensation systems could anticipate. The first was Harmonization. Workers’ Compensation and Prevention coverage, policies, and practices will trend toward greater similarity. Next was Integration, by which I mean workers’ compensation systems will trend toward an expanded mandate and the responsibility for prevention. I added an obvious prediction around Automation. Our work will be increasingly technology enabled… and dependent…even the parts of our work that require high levels of personal interaction. This is both a blessing and a curse since this dependence becomes one of our greatest vulnerabilities.

In some ways, my final prediction is an extension of the others. Cooperation will become a key driver in workers’ compensation. Strategic alliances, direct partnerships, shared resources such as systems and call centers will grow among workers’ compensation agencies and between individual agencies and their stakeholder partners.

In the future, the future that we must enable, we will see what Malcolm Sparrow calls the "Character of Harms" as a driver of what we do internally, externally and most importantly across traditional boundaries.

I can only add my biggest fear: that 20 years from now, workers’ compensation and prevention personnel will look back on what we are doing now and ask: What were you thinking? What did you know—or should have known—and why didn’t you act?

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