Numerous studies demonstrate the benefits of wellness programs and their positive impact of reducing workers’ compensation costs. While they can reduce costs in a program of any size, it is important to be aware of some common pitfalls organizations face when implementing wellness programs.
A Common Hypothetical
The owner of the Acme Widget Company attends a workers’ compensation seminar and learns about the benefits of wellness programs in the workplace. After returning, he installs a basketball hoop and buys a ball for employee’s to use while on their lunch break. Postings about the basketball hoop were posted in common spaces and the owner strongly encouraged all employees play during their break times.After the installation, the employees were excited. A “one on one” league soon formed and the owner administered it. Shortly thereafter, John Doe, the chief widget engineer, injured his knee why playing. Is the injury compensable?
In Hemmler v. WCAB-Clarks Summit State Hospital, 569 A.2d 395 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1990), the following injury was found to be compensable. Like anything, these cases are fact dependent. Central to the court’s review were the following issues:
- Did the injury take place while the employee was engaged in the furtherance of the employer’s business or affairs?
- Was the injury caused by a condition of the employer’s premises that was a required part of the employee’s employment at the time of the injury?
Avoiding Work Comp Issues While Promoting Wellness
Promoting wellness within the workplace can create a double-edged sword for employers. Liability will not be ignored in many instances even though the concept of healthy living and better health are a noble cause. Proactive stakeholders can take the following steps to avoid liability from injuries suffered when employees engage in wellness-related programming.
In reviewing cases that involve injuries while engaging in workplace wellness programs, courts will generally examine whether the activity in question “furthers” the business or affairs of the employer. Because wellness programs reduce workers’ compensation costs, courts have found the requisite connection between the work activities and an injury to uphold compensability and force the payment of various workers’ compensation benefits in certain instances.
- Avoid dictating specific wellness activities during the workday: Courts have consistently found that direct employer mandates in the form of exercise can make injuries compensable. Making generic or benign statements about wellness and not prescribing its preferred form of exercise or activity and reduce exposure in workers’ compensation matters.
- Mandated performance of wellness activities. It is important to give employees the option to participate in wellness or other health program activities. It is important to note that when managers and supervisors require or otherwise pressure employees to participate, resulting injuries are compensable under a workers’ compensation act. Interested stakeholders seeking to minimize their exposure may consider using a third-party service provider to promote and provide information to employees about a wellness program.
- Avoid hosting wellness program activities during the workday or while someone is scheduled to work. Wellness events and engaging in healthy activities is something that should take place every day. An interested stakeholder can minimize their exposure by encouraging employees to engage in wellness activities during their personal time and away from the employers premise.
Encouraging wellness within the workplace has many positive benefits. This should not be overshadowed by the risks of employees sustaining injuries while engaging in these activities, and employers should be encouraged to implement wellness in the workplace.
However, the diligent risk manager should be aware of common pitfalls and implement a wellness program in a manner that avoids unnecessary risks and promotes a better bottom line.
Author Michael Stack, CEO Amaxx LLC. He is an expert in workers compensation cost containment systems and helps employers reduce their work comp costs by 20% to 50%. He works as a consultant to large and mid-market clients, is co-author of Your Ultimate Guide To Mastering Workers Comp Costs, a comprehensive step-by-step manual of cost containment strategies based on hands-on field experience, and is founder & lead trainer of Amaxx Workers’ Comp Training Center. .
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