The construction industry is facing a serious labour shortage and is looking for ways to replace workers who are at the end of their careers and retiring in great numbers.
One source of new — or at least renewed — blood has been receiving attention lately: injured workers who can be brought back to work relatively quickly.
Chris McLeod, associate professor of population and public health at the University of B.C., is heading a study on how injured construction workers can resume work quickly and safely.
“There’s almost no research on this in Canada,” said McLeod. “Construction safety has focused on injury prevention, rather than injury management after an injury has occurred.”
Called “Improving approaches to early and sustainable return-to-work in the construction sector,” the study will look at data from Ontario, British Columbia, Manitoba and Alberta compensation boards, as well as input from employers and unions.
“We’ll report on barriers and facilitators to construction return to work,” said McLeod. “Our purpose is to inform best practices on how companies can facilitate the return of workers to their jobs.”
McLeod said an ideal return-to-work (RTW) outcome would be an injured worker coming back with no impairment to the same job, for the same employer and at their old duties.
But, he said, sustainable return to work also includes accommodation of the injured worker’s disability, rehabilitation or vocational retraining.
In B.C., WorkSafeBC (WSBC) could provide vocational rehabilitation if an injury affects a worker’s ability to return to a previous job. Under the Workers Compensation Act, access to WSBC vocational rehabilitation services and benefits is discretionary; workers are not automatically eligible. An injured worker may be eligible for vocational rehabilitation benefits that are equivalent to wage-loss benefits, along with vocational rehabilitation costs, such as equipment, tuition fees and transportation costs.
While injured workers need to deal with their injuries and the sometimes long and laborious RTW process, their employers must handle the reams of paper work, with their legalistic and often confusing terminology.
To help employers, the BC Construction Safety Alliance (BCCSA) offers a free one-day course called Principles of Injury Management.
Vernita Hsu, director of the alliance’s injury management (IM) program, said the BCCSA will also provide a company with a gap analysis to determine its IM capacity and claims management knowledge.
“With this information, one of our safety advisers can help the company develop a new program or augment an existing one,” Hsu said.
Wayne Fettback, director of safety and procurement at Western Pacific Enterprises Ltd., has had an IM program for 15 years.
“We have a stay-at-work program where we will accommodate any job site injury with appropriate modified duties,” said Fettback. “We’ve been able to reduce our lost-time accidents to almost zero.”
Claims management is a big part of any good safety program, says Fettback.
“Unless you have the time to deal with claims, you need to have a consultant or someone on staff who can,” he said. “And owners and senior managers have to be involved, not just give lip service.”
Cheryl Nomura, an independent claims and injury management consultant, said contractors, especially the smaller ones, need to be proactive in dealing with workers comp.
“They should take the initiative and stay in close contact with both workers compensation and the injured worker,” said Nomura. “By being proactive, they can improve the chances that workers compensation will make a quick decision on a claim.”
Matt Hendrick, president of the Disability Management Institute, said many employers don’t realize there are steps they can take to reduce their workers compensation premiums.
“Don’t accept passively that workers compensation premiums are the cost of doing business and that there’s nothing you can do about their amount,” said Hendrick.
“There’s lots you can do to improve your rates. For example, don’t be afraid to question workers compensation’s decisions.”
Many construction workers are injured every year and it can be easy to see them as a faceless problem to be solved. But they are all individuals with lives and loved ones, say experts.
In August 2015, carpenter Fred Johnson, the father-in-law of Vancouver safety consultant Jeff Lyth, fell 35 feet from the third floor of a condo project onto the concrete below.
Johnson suffered severe brain trauma, multiple skull, pelvis and vertebral fractures and some cardiac complications.
“Fred is requiring more and more daily assistance to get by,” said Lyth. “He will never work again. Until an accident happens, we’re isolated from the realities of the consequences. Only injured workers and their families have experience with it and they’re the ones who have to deal with it.”