A recent evaluation of Oregon
Workers’ Compensation claims and Oregon Occupational Injury
and Illness Survey cases suggests that workers who are injured
on the job are returning to the workplace sooner. In addition
to early-return-to-work programs, legislative changes resulting
in increased safety awareness and changes in the definition of
compensability have decreased the number of accepted disabling
claims in recent years.
Workers' Compensation Claims
The Workers’ Compensation
Division of the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services
receives notification of occupational injuries and illnesses
from insurers. A disabling claim excludes temporary disability
suffered during the first three calendar days after the employee
leaves work as a result of the injury or illness, unless the
employee is an inpatient in a hospital. Nondisabling claims include
occupational injuries and illnesses which result in three or
fewer days of missed work. Reports of occupational injuries and
illnesses are filed with the employer’s insurance company.
The insurer is required to report every claim of disabling injury
or illness to the division within 21 days after the employer
has notice or knowledge of such injury or illness. However, nondisabling
claims are not required to be reported to the division. Because
only a portion are received by the division, the number of nondisabling
claims is estimated.
Disabling vs. nondisabling claims
The recent history of Oregon’s
workers’ compensation system can be divided into two periods.
Prior to 1989, the trends in the total number of workers’
compensation claims were exaggerated versions of Oregon’s
economic trends (Figure 1). The total number of claims fell dramatically
when employment growth slowed in the early 1980s. This is due
in part because less experienced workers tend to be laid off
before experienced workers. Oregon’s workers’ compensation
system was overhauled between 1987 and 1990 by legislative reforms
(HB 2900 and SB 1197). These reforms improved the emphasis on
safety and changed the definitions of compensability (a detailed
description of these changes is available in Summary of Workers’
Compensation Claims Characteristics, Oregon, 1976-1996).
The trend changed between 1988
and 1996 when the number of workers covered by Oregon’s
workers’ compensation law increased 28 percent and the total
number of accepted claims decreased 35 percent. Because the total
number of accepted claims includes accepted disabling claims
(ADCs) received and an estimate of accepted nondisabling claims
based on the number of ADCs, all three figures decreased 35 percent
during this period. The significant decrease in the number of
accepted disabling claims suggests a trend toward fewer days
of missed work. Denied nondisabling claims continued to increase
even though accepted claims began to decline (Figure 2). The
number of denied nondisabling claims more than doubled between
1988 and 1996. However, the number of denied disabling claims
remained relatively constant after SB 1197, followed by a 20
percent decrease between 1992 and 1993. As a result, the total
number of denied nondisabling claims increased significantly,
while the number of denied disabling claims decreased slightly.
Therefore, the overall trend for denied claims has also been
toward fewer days of missed work.
Oregon Occupational Injury
and Illness Survey
The Oregon Occupational Injury
and Illness Survey utilizes data collected from a scientifically
selected sample of private and public sector employers. These
employers maintain a log and a supplementary record of occupational
injuries and illnesses. Injuries and illnesses that meet recordkeeping
guidelines for the survey include fatalities, and cases with
lost workdays, or medical treatment. Lost workday (LWD) cases
involve days away from work and days of restricted work activity.
Days away from work are those days when an employee would normally
have worked but could not due to an occupational injury or illness.
Days of restricted work activity include days after the injury
in which the employee is transferred to a temporary job, is unable
to perform some of the regular duties of his or her permanent
job, or is unable to work full-time at his or her permanent job.
Lost workday vs. days away from
Between 1988 and 1996, the total
number of LWD cases declined 11 percent, while the portion of
these cases involving days away from work declined 23 percent.
The growing difference between LWD cases and cases involving
days away from work represents a growth in cases involving restricted
work activity. Figure 3 illustrates these changes. This trend
supports the theory that workers are returning to the workplace
sooner after suffering occupational injuries or illnesses by
returning to restricted work activity rather than taking days
away from work.
Correlation Between Disabling
Claims and Days Away from Work Cases
Figure 4 shows a strong correlation
between the number of accepted disabling workers’ compensation
claims and the number of survey cases involving days away from
work. Since 1980, these two data sets have followed each other
very closely. A graph of the accepted disabling claims rate (number
of claims per 100 workers) and the days away from work case rate
(number of cases per 100 workers) also shows a strong correlation
between data sets (Figure 5). Changes in the number and rate
of accepted disabling claims have paralleled changes in the number
and rate of days away from work cases. The similarities between
these two data sets support the theory that the decline in the
number of ADCs can be explained in part by the fact that employers
are returning injured workers to the workplace sooner, thereby
avoiding having some claims become disabling.
The Employer-at-Injury program
is a package of financial incentives to Oregon employers to develop
early-return-to-work programs for workers injured on the job.
This program, which helps employees return to temporary, modified
work at the earliest feasible date, may be helping to reduce
the number of injuries that become classified as disabling. During
its first year (1993), the program helped 447 disabled workers
return to work early. Preliminary data shows the program helped
8,348 disabled workers return to work early in 1997. Beginning
in 1996, the program was expanded to include nondisabling claims.
In 1996 and 1997, 4,380 workers with nondisabling claims began
an early-return-to-work program in the first six days after their
date of injury. Sixty-four percent of these workers began the
program either on the day they were injured or during the two
days following their injury. Had these employees missed more
than three days before returning to work, the status of their
workers’ compensation claim would have changed from nondisabling
to disabling. Therefore, the employees who return to work during
the first two days after their date of injury offset the number
of disabling claims.
Decline in Accepted Disabling
There are several explanations
for the 35 percent decline in accepted disabling claims between
1988 and 1996. Improvements in workplace safety were achieved
through better awareness of safety issues and increased penalties
against employers who violated the state safety and health act.
Safety and health loss prevention programs were required of insurers
and self-insured employers. Employers with more than 10 employees,
and smaller employers with high lost-workday incidence rates
or high premium classifications were required to establish safety
committees. Furthermore, SB 1197 changed the definitions of compensability
for occupational injuries and illnesses, making it more difficult
for some occupational injuries and illnesses to be defined as
compensable (these changes are described in Summary of Workers’
Compensation Claims Characteristics, Oregon, 1976-1996).
A decline in the number and/or severity of workplace accidents
leading to injury or illness was observed after these legislative
reforms were put into effect.
In addition to increased safety
awareness and changes in the definitions of compensability, early-return-to-work
programs are helping injured employees return to the workplace
sooner. When early-return-to-work programs assist employees by
returning them to work during the first two days after their
date of injury, these programs help decrease the number of accepted