Workers injured while traveling? How Workers’ Comp Should Respond: Risk & Insurance
Accidents at work can occur when a worker is on the street. What employee comp professionals need to know.
Imagine this: You finally send employees on their first business trips since the pandemic began.
For the first time in almost three years, they meet customers in person. Your employees enjoy handshakes, fist punches, face-to-face meetings that last for days, and evening happy hours. They look forward to exploring the local food scene in a new city and connecting with new clients and colleagues.
The journey gets off to a good start, until a worker stumbles over a piece of loose carpet on a flight of stairs. His arm jerks out to break the fall, breaking his wrist in the process. Now he is injured and away from home.
“Statistically, it doesn’t happen often, but it does happen,” said Tammy Bradly, senior director of clinical product marketing at Genex Services, of workplace accidents that occur when an employee is away from home. “The more exposure you have, the more likely it could happen.”
How should the professional association react in these cases? The Answer: Just as with any workplace injury, with compassion and determination that the well-being of the worker is put above all else.
However, if an employee is injured while away, there is an additional dimension of difficulty to the claim. Workers’ comp case managers must work with the worker to decide whether they should be taken home or whether they need care where they are. In addition, language barriers may exist or medical records may need to be submitted when the employee is traveling abroad.
When can an employee be injured while traveling?
Obviously any normal vacation would not qualify for workers compensation, but if a worker traveling to a conference or someone temporarily working in another city or even another country is injured, their injury may be eligible come.
Michelle Despres, vice president of product management and national clinical director for physical therapy at One Call, knows firsthand how difficult it can be to manage an injury at work when you’re away from home. Earlier this year while attending the American Physical Therapy Association annual conference, she slipped, fell and broke her leg.
Her bone, she said, looked like a jigsaw puzzle that someone had thrown out of the box onto a table. Fragments lay everywhere.
The conference, held in San Antonio, Texas, was more than a thousand miles from their home in Jacksonville, Florida. Despres was removed from her support system and her phone died when she was taken to the emergency room. She couldn’t help but feel alone and a little scared.
“I was alone and in a place that isn’t my home,” Despres said. “I couldn’t call anyone to just walk over and help me.”
Another scenario where workers’ compensation may need to step in and service a worker in another country is when a worker who is a citizen of another country is employed by a US corporation and works in the United States.
Bradly shared stories of workers who wanted to emigrate from the United States after permanent and total accidents at work. In one case, a worker who needed home health care decided to relocate to Thailand with his wife. In another case, a man whose injuries left him paralyzed wanted to return to his native Costa Rica.
In both cases, Genex faced various challenges in providing care.
For the worker who wanted to retire to Thailand, Bradly explained that “There is no home health care in Thailand like there is in the US. Most of the time, if you need care, your family will take care of you.” So Genex had to figure out how to get him the services he needed. They ended up coordinating with a local hospital that could provide home care services.
The employee who wanted to return to Costa Rica faced similar challenges. He wanted to return to a remote town with few medical facilities in the immediate area. Genex found him a doctor who could make house calls so his care wasn’t interrupted.
What should you do if an employee is injured while away?
The main question facing workers’ peers when a worker is injured while away is this: should they be treated on site or taken home for care?
The answer depends on the severity of the injury and the employee’s preferences. In the case of Despres, the answer was something of a hybrid. She had her first surgery in San Antonio before being rushed to Jacksonville by ambulance for the remainder of her treatment.
Although claims figures are not generated immediately, it is important for case managers to make early contact when an employee is injured while traveling. Workers who are away from home may experience more anxiety and other psychosocial factors because they are in an unfamiliar environment and may not be able to connect with their support system.
If possible, try to facilitate the recovery process for the injured worker. One of the actions Despres appreciated most was that her case managers anticipated her needs. She recalls coming home after her second surgery to find that her workers’ comp team had installed a ramp so she could get through her front door in a wheelchair. They also procured a shower chair and other medical equipment she needed.
“They anticipated what gear I would need and that was so helpful,” Despres said. “It was a stressor I didn’t know I had until I knew they resolved it.”
Injured abroad? Get ready for even more complexity
When a worker is injured abroad, care becomes even more complicated. Case managers in these cases may face language barriers, the need to transfer or translate medical records, and other challenges.
Bradly said these hurdles can arise when a worker travels abroad temporarily or when someone with a long-term, catastrophic injury later decides to move to another country.
“In both scenarios, we’re dealing with people who may be recovering outside of the United States,” Bradly said.
Genex’s Care Abroad program is designed to help employers navigate these labyrinthine situations. The program helps manage logistics such as transferring medical records or providing translation services and assisting injured workers.
“Arranging all of these things is a pretty tough job for a clerk who isn’t used to doing business outside of the US,” Bradly said.
“Often these injured employees do not speak the language, so they are in a hospital or at a meeting with a provider but cannot communicate with the provider. We can help and support this injured employee by making sure they have appropriate access to translation services and really helping them understand what is going on.”
In any case, employers should approach employees who have been injured while traveling for work with compassion.
Despres recalls how caring her colleagues and case managers were—packing her hotel room for her, anticipating her needs, calling, and sending check-in cards—throughout the recovery process.
“Everyone on the employer side got in touch,” she recalls. “I got tickets. I got flowers I was connected to my work colleagues.” &