U.S. Steel Lawsuit Could Impact Reporting Policies
It’s commonly known that the earlier a work injury is reported, chances are better that claim costs will be controlled and the worker’s absence will be limited.
But strictly enforced policies that require workers to report an injury in 24 hours or face disciplinary action are being deemed too rigid.
In February, the U.S. Department of Labor filed suit against U.S. Steel for disciplinary action the company took against two employees.
The Pennsylvania-based workers reported injuries several days after they occurred and were suspended without pay for violating U.S. Steel’s policy that required reporting of an injury within 24 hours.
The employees filed complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), alleging the suspensions were retaliatory.
“The reliability of witness statements can degrade significantly over time.” — Joseph Freeman, managing director, risk control, Beecher Carlson
DOL’s lawsuit charges that U.S. Steel’s action violates the anti-discrimination provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.
In announcing the lawsuit, Richard Mendelson, OSHA regional administrator in Philadelphia, said the company’s policy “discourages employees from reporting injuries for fear of retaliation.”
“Because workers don’t always recognize injuries at the time they occur, the policy provides an incentive for employees to not report injuries once they realize they should, since they are concerned that the timing of their report would violate the company’s policy and result in some kind of reprimand.”
The suit demands that U.S. Steel rescind the disciplinary actions, and pay the workers lost wages and damages. It also wants the company’s policy to be changed so that employees can report workplace injuries or illnesses up to seven days after becoming aware of them.
Workers’ compensation experts say that there is nothing wrong with asking employees to report an injury immediately, in theory anyway.
“Many companies have a rule that you must report workplace injuries immediately, and it is not designed to be a ‘gotcha’ opportunity,” said Joseph Freeman, managing director, risk control at Beecher Carlson.
Prompt reporting of workplace injuries lowers costs and improves outcomes, experts said.
“The insurance companies have statistics on the amount of money paid depending on how late the claim is reported,” said Robert Phelan, president and CEO of TriPoint.
“If you miss a week in reporting, you get killed. And it goes downhill from there.
“What’s really critical in workers’ comp today is to get the injured employee the right medical treatment from the beginning. Conditions worsen when treatment is delayed, which can happen if the wrong treatment is sought from the start.”
Phelan said that delays can cause medical-only claims to become lost-time claims.
Delays also impede efforts to investigate — and remediate — the causes of injury or illness.
“Conditions at a workplace can change very rapidly,” Freeman said. “If the employer isn’t given the opportunity to investigate immediately, when they do conduct their investigation, the environment could be completely different from when the incident actually occurred.”
“Workplace safety is all about communication, and communication is what creates the culture.” — Robert Phelan, president and CEO, TriPoint
He added that injured workers often don’t see the injury occur, making co-workers’ accounts important.
“The reliability of witness statements can degrade significantly over time,” Freeman said.
Immediate reporting policies help companies gather statements while they are as accurate as possible, he said.
Fraudulent claims, while rare, do occur, and delays, particularly over a weekend, not only make it harder to determine a claim’s validity, but can also spark employer suspicions, harming workplace culture, experts said.
Longer delays can also trigger exclusions to coverage.
“In every insurance policy there is an obligation to report a claim in a timely manner,” Phelan said.
“If you get outside of 30 days, an insurance company could say … ‘We’re not going to pay for it.’ … because your ability to understand what really happened is compromised.
“The [insurance] premium is going to increase on its own, because if you have this late reporting, the statistics prove it will make your claims values higher, and if the claims are higher … your premium goes up,” Phelan says.
Implications of Lawsuit
The suit could have implications beyond U.S. Steel’s policy and procedures.
“If OSHA wins the case, I think many companies will have to revise their policies and retrain people to say, ‘We would appreciate you reporting these immediately so we can investigate in a timely manner, but you have seven days, per OSHA,’ ” Freeman said.
While Phelan doubts U.S. Steel intended to discourage reporting, he said punitive policies are a bad idea.
Strict disciplinary action, he said, could make workers wary of filing safety reports and damage the collaborative workplace culture that is the most powerful tool in reducing reporting times.
“Workplace safety is all about communication, and communication is what creates the culture. You can’t just send out an email or put something in their pay envelope — it’s got to be continuously communicated. We tell our employees to get everyone to report everything, because if it doesn’t amount to anything, you just throw the paperwork in the trash.’”
“Careful communication between employers and employees is absolutely critical,” he said; the wrong tone can put employees on the defensive.
“When those policies are communicated with greater care, the employees will adhere to them more frequently and you end up having a better culture because of it, which sets all parties up for success.”