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Health Matters - The Aspen Medical Podcast: Workers compensation in a hybrid work environment

In this episode, we chat with Aspen Medical's Group Medical Director, Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, about workers compensation in a hybrid work environment.

Transcript

Eamonn Quinn

Welcome to Health Matters, the Aspen Medical podcast. I'm your host, Eamonn Quinn, from the Aspen Medical, Marketing and Communications team. Today, I'll be joined by a colleague, Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, Aspen Medical's Group Medical Director. Andrew is a senior consultant in occupational medicine and an epidemiologist. His roles have included Clinical Reference Lead for the Digital Health Agency, Tele Doctor for Mater Private Emergency, Chief Health and Medical Officer for Woodside Energy, rural and remote locum in multiple remote locations and has provided telemedicine emergency and occupational advice to remote sites for Origin Energy. Good morning, Andrew. Welcome to the show again.

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

Morning.

Eamonn Quinn

Andrew, today we're going to talk about post-COVID-19 complexities in workers compensation. Just to give the audience a little bit of background. With large numbers of workers continuing to work from home or be in the office part-time, employees are asking about their worker compensation entitlements. There is a predicted increase in workers compensation claims as workers return to workplaces and run the risk of catching COVID-19. In Australia, since the pandemic began, there have been around 3000 COVID-19 related workers compensation claims, according to data obtained by the ABC from state and territory agencies, and the two states hardest hit by the pandemic have recorded the highest number of workers compensation claims related to COVID-19. So to start, Andrew, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on workplaces in Australia and around the world. Now that people are returning to work in hybrid workplaces, what are the risks you see?

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

COVID-19 has touched everybody. There have been over 5 million deaths across the world. No, we are vaccinating. We've given out 7 billion doses, which is about three and a half billion people vaccinated. We're seeing that people are now starting to come back to work but we're also seeing a lot of people want to still do this hybrid work style, where they're working from home and sometimes come to work. Now that seems to be part of the new landscape. There are some complications with that. A lawyer raised the question recently: What happens if you make lunch at home and you cut your finger? Is that worker's comp or not? According to the lawyer, that's workers comp. It would be the same as if cutting your finger while you're at lunch at work. So really, it's much more complex. It used to be that if you're injured at home, it's not workers comp but now that we've got these hybrid workplaces, injuries at home can actually be compensated.

Eamonn Quinn

Alright, so we know workers compensation can be a big expense. How can organisations manage that particular cost?

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

With COVID-19, we've got two issues. We've got a COVID-19 infection in the workplace. Now, suppose that actually can be proven to be caught in the workplace. In that case, it is a compensable disease, and particularly if a person is very sick, they can get long COVID or potentially even die from this, so it can be a very large expense. That's why organisations need a lot of advice. Both legal and medical advice to work out what they can do with vaccinations. Can they make it mandatory for people who come to work to be vaccinated? For me, it's simple. I would say yes, you have to this is. You've got a workplace, the disease can spread, you have to get them vaccinated. But that's the doctor's view. The legal view is much more complex in that you have to be able to prove that it is a risk, a health and safety risk. I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not going to talk about how you have to go through that whole process. But when I've done this with other companies, it's actually been quite a long process. We've had to go and do very complicated health risk assessments, we've had to use statistics, we've had to prove that this is a risk that needs to be managed. Only then and after legal people have approved it can we say it's mandatory to have a vaccination to come to the workplace. So, I think there are some places that just make it mandatory, totally mandatory. So health care workers have to get vaccinated if they want to go work in a hospital. If you don't get vaccinated, you lose your job.

Eamonn Quinn

It is a complex area. As you've pointed out, there are areas of law, areas of medicine, and I suppose that's why people would come looking for advice. It's not simple. You've got to talk to experts, which I guess is exactly why we have a Global Advisory Services team of which you're one of the people who support that. But don't organisations already have injury management systems in place?

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

Well, they do. But as I said, this is complex. Long COVID, is that an injury because you caught it at work? Or is it an illness? And there's a fine line in occupational medicine. We have occupational diseases, and it can be an occupational injury or an occupational illness. Like asbestos causing mesothelioma. If you work for an asbestos mine and you've got mesothelioma, that's compensable, with long COVID as well. I mean, if you've caught that at work, that's a compensable thing. Then what about all the mental health issues that we see because of quarantines and isolations. We've got this massive increase in mental health concerns. Now, anyone who's worked in workers compensation will know that stress at work has been going on. Bullying at work, sexual harassment, I mean, there are so many complexities now. I think for long COVID, that's a real issue and mental health, it's a real issue. And when you're dealing with hybrid workplaces, that makes it even more complex. It's really important that companies start thinking about these complexities and how they will deal with them. You want to care for your employees and give them the best care possible. But you do have to be prepared for these new diseases that are basically coming from the COVID-19 pandemic, and from the changed environment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Eamonn Quinn

Okay, you mentioned mining sites. From our chats and from your background, I know that you have a considerable amount of experience, both within mining, oil and gas. They're perceived certainly as dangerous workplaces. What are organisations in this sector doing?

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

Well, the reason why I bring mining in is that I've always been impressed. Wherever there's lots of energy, like oil, things can explode. There have been terrible accidents where rigs have exploded, and people have died. So because of that, the mine sites and the oil and gas and resource sectors have developed very strong health and safety programs. Sometimes I feel other organisations, in education and even health, can learn from the resource sector. They're really good at identifying risks and they're really good at managing those risks. They actually measure them as well, so that they know that what they're doing works. If someone does get injured, they're extremely good at getting them back to work. So they watch the LTI. Now, a lot of this is also to do with contractual stuff. I mean, if they have bad statistics, they're less likely to get the contract. So they work very carefully to make sure that they manage all their injuries. What I've seen and what I call it is the culture of caring. I work in hospitals, I'm a doctor and we don't have a pre-day tool meeting, where we go through all the risks that we may encounter. Doctors and nurses might pick up a heavy patient, or push a bed or if someone fall's and they try to catch them. We don't do that. But if you go to the resource sector, they're always having these meetings where they talk about the risks and identify the risks. You've got to get permits to work in a hot area, which is an area that could explode. So they've got a lot of procedures and a lot of policies around health and safety. That has made a big difference. What we're seeing is that despite mine sites being more dangerous, it's ten times safer to work in a mine site than it is to work in a hospital, just as an example. So I think a lot of organisations can learn from the resource sector. You can have this sort of cross-fertilisation, but people don't realise they do. A lot of companies like Woolworths and hospitals will have injury management programs, but they'll be able to improve. If you compare their statistics and the data to places like the resource sector, they're not doing very well, and they could do a lot better.

Eamonn Quinn

Which is a nice lead into the fact that if they want to do better and want to make this a little bit better for themselves, they should be taking action. They should be talking to the right people. Where would organisations go to for this kind of advice?

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

Well, as I said, it's a very complex area and it's getting more and more complex. As an example, I worked with an organisation and they had pretty bad statistics. Comparing themselves against another group, they were not good. So they came to an Occupational Physician, we sat down and we made a plan. It actually took about three or four years to change things. But they actually became twice as good as the organisation they were benchmarked against. What that meant is that, instead of paying $6 million a year in insurance premiums, they started paying $3 million a year in insurance premiums. And instead, 40% of people staying at work when they got injured went up to 80% of people staying at work. They were put on light duties, they were supported, they were sent to physios. This made a massive difference, not only to the premiums, so they saved something like $20 million. I worked with this organisation for about ten years. I said it took three or four years to get there, but then we saved about $20 million over seven years, just in premiums. That didn't include all the worker's compensation, legal cases, or the lawyers, fees, anything like that, that was just in premiums. So they saved a massive amount of money by getting good advice and by implementing a really strong program. I actually think that there's a lot of companies who think that they know about workers comp and they think they know how to manage injuries, but they actually need some advice. It's really about the culture of caring, it's really about realising that every injury is an opportunity to one, improve your workplace and two, to care for your worker. Make sure they get better fast and get gets back to work. You know, when you lose an employee, you lose a valuable resource. All of the training, everything that's gone into them over the years, they are actually really important parts of your organisation. It's really, really important for people to start thinking about how they can better care for their workers.

Eamonn Quinn

Andrew, obviously, with expertise such as your own as an occupational medical specialist, it's people like yourself that people should be talking to when they're trying to get through this minefield, so to speak. That's why we have a Global Advisory Services team, to help people in all sectors navigate this.

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko

It's not just me. I only do the occupational medicine side. There's a whole environmental side. So obviously, in resource companies, you've got to measure noise and you need an industrial hygiene for that. There are environmental exposures, asbestos, coal dust. In hospitals, you've got chemotherapeutic drugs, or what we call biological agents that can cause infections, problems with miscarriages and learning disabilities. So potentially, there are a lot of other issues, they're not just medical. That's why we have an Advisory Services group. As I said, you need some legal advice as well. But on the medical side, you sometimes need public health physicians because they need to deal with infection control, you need environmental specialists, industrial hygienists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, doctors, occupational medicine specialists, there's a whole range of people that are sometimes required to make this work. It's not as simple as, oh, let's just go talk to someone and it's going to get better. It is actually a long process and it does take time. It does take commitment from management to bring these changes. But the payoffs are really, really big. Your investment, it's only a small investment but the return on your investment can be massive. We're talking millions of dollars of savings here. I just think companies need to be aware that they can do things better. People are doing not a bad job. But it's getting much more complex, and you need advice. If you do get the right advice, you can actually do better. It saves you money and you care for your employees. The other great thing that we're noticing is that the value of companies that do this goes up on the share market. Many studies show that companies that focus on health, safety, and the environment actually do better than other companies that don't. I think that's a reflection of you taking care of your workers, the culture of caring. It does make a difference. Your human resources are very, very important. You've got to take care of them.

Eamonn Quinn

Dr Andrew Jeremijenko, Aspen Medical's Group Medical Director and somebody who closely supports our Global Advisory Services team. Andrew, thank you so much again for your time today. Appreciate it.