Receiving workers’ comp benefits sometimes depends on when the injury was reported. But do workers know all the reasons why it’s important to report even minor injuries as quickly as possible?
The minimum that a law requires often isn’t enough for the best interests of employees and employers. Here’s an example.
Donald Poole was a project manager for Benedict Metal Works in Washington, DC. On May 10, 2010, Poole and a colleague were at a customer site installing a sheet metal wall.
While they were moving a 32-foot extension ladder that weighed 80 pounds down two steps, Poole’s co-worker lost his balance and nearly fell. Poole reached out to prevent the ladder from toppling. He immediately felt pain in his right shoulder.
Poole took a short break and then continued working. He didn’t seek medical attention.
The pain in his shoulder increased, and he saw a chiropractor on July 6, almost two months later. The chiropractor told him his pain was likely from an injury and ordered an MRI which showed a tear in the right rotator cuff.
On July 13, Poole returned to work with restrictions from the chiropractor and reported his injury and the accident.
Poole had surgery on Sept. 3. A month later Poole still experienced pain. On Nov. 16, the surgeon advised Poole not to return to work for another six weeks.
Benedict terminated Poole on Dec. 30, stating that since he hadn’t returned to work it was assumed he had quit.
Poole filed a workers’ comp claim for temporary total disability (TTD) benefits starting Dec. 30. An administrative law judge (ALJ) granted Poole benefits, finding he’d given timely notice of his injury because he “did not know, within the first 30 days after the accident that he had a compensable injury.”
Washington, DC workers’ comp law requires employees to report an injury within 30 days.
On appeal, the Compensation Review Board (CRB) withdrew the award of TTD benefits, ruling the ALJ was wrong that the 30-day notice provision didn’t kick in until Poole knew about the extent of his injury. The CRB found Poole was aware of his injury on May 10, so notice of his injury had to be given to his employer no later than June 9.
Poole took his case to a DC appeals court.
When does clock start?
The District of Columbia Court of Appeals said Poole’s case turned on an interpretation of part of the District’s Workers’ Compensation Act:
“Notice of any injury shall be given within 30 days after the date of such injury or 30 days after the employee is aware or should have been aware of a relationship between the injury and the employment.”
Poole argued it wasn’t possible for him to know he had suffered a torn rotator cuff right when the accident happened.
Benedict countered the notice period should have begun to run when the accident occurred and shouldn’t have been delayed just because Poole wasn’t aware of the extent of the injury.
The court noted it hadn’t been asked to resolve an issue of when the 30-day period started according to DC law. This was a case of so-called “first impression.”
The court noted workers’ comp laws make distinctions between “accidents” and “injuries.” Accident refers to the event causing the harm. Injury refers to the harmful physical consequences of the event which doesn’t need to become obvious at the time of the event.
DC’s workers’ comp law (as quoted above) specifically uses the word “injury” and not the word “accident.”
The law also requires the employee to be aware of the injury and its work-relatedness.
In this case, the court ruled that Poole found this out when the chiropractor told him his pain was likely from an injury. The court noted although Poole felt a sharp pain in his shoulder at the time of the accident on May 10, after taking a short break, he was able to continue working that day and during the next few weeks. It wasn’t until almost two months later that he sought medical help.
So the court ruled Poole should receive TTD benefits.
Purpose of 30-day notice
Although the court effectively lengthened the time employees can take to inform their employers about a workplace injury to receive workers’ comp benefits, it did acknowledge there are important reasons why the 30-day notice provision is included in the law:
- “To enable the employer to provide immediate medical diagnosis and treatment with a view to minimizing the seriousness of the injury,” and
- “To facilitate the earliest possible investigation of the facts surrounding the injury.”
The court goes on to note “accidents which appear minor at the time they occur may result in greater injury than anticipated.”
No safety pro could have said it better.
Why have some employers developed workplace rules that require the reporting of any incident like this, including near-misses? Among the reasons:
- It’s simple human nature for some employees to ignore these types of incidents. Like Poole, even when they feel pain, they decide to work through it. How many times have you heard someone say, “I can work with a little pain.”
- What may be a little pain now might be a lot of pain later, including enough to prohibit work. Once again, Poole found this out the hard way.
- Quicker diagnosis and treatment is often a key to successful recovery from an injury. Although this court decision doesn’t provide all the medical details of Poole’s situation, you have to wonder if the surgery would have been more successful if he’d sought medical attention earlier, rather than waiting almost two months.
Poole may have complied with what was necessary to get workers’ comp benefits. But did his delay in reporting his injury hurt his eventual recovery? We’ll never know for sure, but why take that chance?
What has your company done to encourage workers to report injuries and near-misses right away? Let us know in the comments below.
(Donald Poole v. Benedict Metal Works, DC Court of Appeals, No. 12-AA-1300, 10/10/13)