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OPINION: Back to work at all costs

['The P.E.I. Workers Compensation Board offices in Charlottetown.']
['The P.E.I. Workers Compensation Board offices in Charlottetown.']

Goal of WCB to provide protection for Island workers and compensation for workplace injuries

BY TRISH ALTASS

AND MATTHEW MACFARLANE

GUEST OPINION

The recently released annual report from the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) outlines the financial status of the organization and highlights recent enhanced education efforts to increase employee safety in the workplace -- a worthwhile endeavour for prevention of workplace injuries.

In the report, the WCB board also celebrates that “the average duration for a claim was 20 per cent shorter, with more workers returning to work more quickly than the previous year” (Guardian, July 2018).

The report claims throughout that “research shows that the longer an injured worker is away from work, the less likely they are to return to work.” Though it is unclear what specific research they are referring to, this has indeed been shown to be true in some contexts.

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However, research also shows that there are many factors at play for a successful return to work after an injury. How quickly one returns to work is but a small component and a more nuanced approach to return to work practices is required.

The annual WCB report also highlights that starting in 2017, “Workers who require support in returning to work following a workplace injury are assigned a case coordinator.

The role of the case coordinator is to support the injured worker in their recovery and work collaboratively with the employer and service providers in assisting the worker in their transition back to work.”

This addition could be a very positive initiative, helping to support workers through what can be a difficult transition. However, it is unclear how workers are deemed to be in need of this additional support, what percentage of those returning to work are afforded this support, or if those declared ready to return to work are ever reassessed to determine if their transition has been successful or if additional supports are needed. It is also unclear whether workers have the necessary resources and support upon which to rely if they feel that they are not ready to make a return to work, contrary to the direction of WCB.

Essentially, returning to work after injury is not a one-size-fits-all, and the health and wellbeing of injured workers must be accurately assessed on an ongoing basis and take precedence over blanket early return to work initiatives.

It is interesting to note that while the WCB celebrates a 20 per cent decrease in the average duration of claims, the number of appeals filed with the Workers Compensation Appeal Tribunal (WCAT) has steadily increased in recent years from 27 notices of appeals in 2013, to 61 in 2017 -- a 125 per cent increase in just four years.

It’s clear that the new return to work focus is saving money in the short term, contributing to a $21.4 million surplus distribution to Island employers, but what are the long-term implications? Are we measuring how reduced claim durations are impacting the mental and physical well-being of workers, and if so, why isn’t this information included in the WCB report?

The goal of the WCB is to provide protection for Island workers and compensation for when workplace injuries occur -- not moving injured workers back to work at all costs and potentially terminating benefits prematurely. Before we celebrate the WCB’s cost savings and efficiencies, more information is needed about the health and wellbeing of the workers the system is intended to protect.

- Trish Altass is the Green party's shadow critic for workforce and advanced learning; Matthew MacFarlane is the justice critic for the Green Party of Prince Edward Island

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