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Workers’ comp 101 for fleet owners

Feb. 21, 2020
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the trucking industry consistently ranks among the top five occupations with the largest number of workplace injuries. The potential for injury is significant for truck drivers, with many on-the-job risks.

By Matthew Walker, partner at Drew Eckl & Farnham

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the trucking industry consistently ranks among the top five occupations with the largest number of workplace injuries. The potential for injury is significant for truck drivers, with on-the-job risks including loading and unloading cargo, slips and strains from entering and exiting cabs, repetitive body movements over long periods of time, falls from loading docks, and handling heavy equipment, in addition to the ever-present risk of traffic accidents. And, as an owner or operator, the burden often falls on you to provide workers’ compensation insurance for drivers.

The laws that govern workers’ compensation requirements vary from state to state and are complicated by fleets crossing state lines during longhaul trips. However, by taking proactive steps to prevent and handle workers’ compensation claims, you can reduce costs and disruptions for your business.

1. Make smart hiring decisions and invest in safety

In today’s tight labor market, you may be eager to fill a seat by hiring any applicant who checks the basic boxes. However, when it comes to putting someone behind the wheel of a truck, it’s important to only hire well-qualified, trustworthy individuals. While vehicular accidents will involve police reports and witness accounts, other workplace injuries related to trucking often happen away from port and without third-party witnesses. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that only 17% of injuries in trucking transportation are the result of a collision or motor vehicle-related incident, compared to 27% resulting from slips, trips and falls.

Given this statistic, it’s important to only hire drivers you can trust to act responsibly and report injuries quickly and honestly. Likewise, it’s important to build a partnership with your drivers in keeping them safe. Educate your employees on how to reduce risks and make investments in safety through offerings such as allowances for steel-toed, ANSI-certified safety shoes.

2. On the front end, work with your insurance carrier or state commission or understand what needs to be done before someone reports an injury.

Taking proactive steps to prevent and prepare for workplace injuries goes beyond educating your employees on basic safety protocol and investing in the right pairs of shoes for your drivers. Employers must understand their legal obligations under the workers’ compensation system, and these vary by state. To understand the details of your state’s law, contact your state department of workers’ compensation and insurance carrier.

For example, the state of Georgia requires employers to identify a panel of physicians authorized to treat injured workers and post this panel in a conspicuous location, such as a terminal’s break area. The panel should also be explained to the employee, preferably during the hiring and orientation process. If this panel is never posted or explained to a claimant, the employee is able to treat with the doctor of his or her choosing, potentially increasing costs for the employer. This is just one example of how understanding your state’s requirements can save you time, energy and money later on.

3. Document everything

It’s impossible to present a strong defense without careful documentation, and that starts from the moment an accident is reported. When an accident occurs or an employee shows up with a visible limp or other injury, you should immediately gather information, report the accident and begin investigation and documentation.

It’s best to establish a written policy about timeliness of reporting to ensure injuries are reported as quickly as possible. During the initial claim investigation, you should consider and document factors such as: witness statements; the timeliness of the injury report; evidence of a pre-existing condition for that employee; surveillance footage; timing of the accident; whether or not the employee has group health insurance; history of prior claims; and any recent reprimands, warnings or probation for that employee.

4. Take claims seriously

The moment an individual reports a workplace injury, the employer should advise their insurance carrier and determine whether it is appropriate to send the employee to a physician for evaluation. This will aid in determining whether or not this is a bona fide claim and illustrate the employer’s commitment to addressing workplace injuries in a timely manner. If the injured worker refuses medical attention, this should be documented.

If an employer fails to show concern and the employee feels ignored or distrusted as a result, he or she is more likely to contact a lawyer and the case is more likely to enter litigation. From the time a claim is filed, the employer usually has 14-30 days to investigate, depending on the state. Obtaining a medical opinion quickly may also aid in the claims process.

The first few weeks will make or break a claim. By staying proactive and following these steps, you can reduce costs and get people back to work.

Matt Walker practices workers' compensation law and serves national and regional clients who have a Georgia presence. He has worked with both public and private companies and gained valuable experience litigating cases for clients in the automotive industry, health care, telecommunications, food & beverage, manufacturing, and trucking & transportation arenas. He has developed proficiency in managing complex and high exposure workers' compensation claims involving technical and sometimes obscure medical issues.

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