Part 2: Do the words we use to describe WC claims matter?

30 Jul, 2012 Terry Bogyo

The basic terms we use in workers' compensation have meanings, associations and connotations whether we like them or not. I received a lot of questions and comments on my last post about terms such as “old dog” and “long tail” claims and I want to explore the idea that the other basic terms we use in workers' compensation can influence how we and other stakeholders think and potentially act.

If you ask someone about the purpose of workers' compensation, you generally get a response about compensation for accidents and a few will add something about prevention. “Accident” is often defined or understood to mean a “fortuitous event” and has the connotation of randomness and inevitability. An analysis of work-related injuries shows that the vast majority of work-related events that result in injury are preventable. Calling the specifics of a work-related injury event an “accident” may subtly shift thinking away from causation and prevention and towards inevitability and “bad luck”.

A few years ago, WorkSafeBC shifted its terminology with respect to work-related injuries involving motor vehicles from Motor Vehicle Accidents (MVAs) to Motor Vehicle Incidents (MVIs). Unless referring to a specific term in legislation (such as the Accident Fund), WorkSafeBC actively avoids using the term accident in its annual report and services plan as well as other publications.

The word “claim” as a noun has several possible meanings, the most common of which has a connotative meaning of a statement that is not yet substantiated, doubted or contested. By extension, the connotation of the word “claimant” can be similar to that of supplicant—a connotation that sets up a power relationship that can be problematic. Even the synonyms of Plaintiff and Complainant set up an adversarial relationship. Although terms like claimant may be necessary in some very specific contexts, I use “injured worker” in place of claimant wherever possible. Workers' compensation systems are there for injured workers. “Worker” generally has a positive connotation, a sense of dignity and attachment to an occupation and employer. “Injured” speaks to the the consequences of a work-related event rather than the bureaucratic process of filing a “claim” for workers' compensation. This may not be a perfect alternative, but in my view, it is preferable. (As an aside, in the British Columbia, the word “claimant” only occurs in Schedule B to the Workers Compensation Act and only in the context of certain occupational cancers and hand-arm vibration).

Finally, the term “benefit” connotes something different from “compensation” in common parlance. “Benefit” is often thought of as an advantage or profit gained from something; it is hard to think of an injured worker profiting or gaining from a work-related injury particularly a serious one. Do we really need to tack on the word “benefit” to workers' compensation?

My advice is use words that keep the focus on the needs of person and his or her family. Just think about the way the words sound and how they make you feel in the sentences below:

a) The injured worker requested assistance in obtaining a wheel chair to aid in recovery

b) The claimant made a claim for medical aid benefits to cover the cost of a wheel chair.

Both sentences convey similar meeting but the first is focused on the worker and the worker's needs while the second is focussed on a claim for a benefit with a tone, to my ear, that questions entitlement and focuses on costs.

Not every situation will allow you to avoid the terms mentioned in this series. Even if you cannot avoid the terms, thinking about the words we use may help improve understanding of how words influence perceptions and actions in workers' compensation.

About Terry Bogyo:

Terry BogyoTerry is the Director of Corporate Planning and Development for WorkSafeBC. His current responsibilities include environmental scanning, strategic planning and inter-jurisdictional comparisons.

Terry says of himself: I am a student of workers' compensation systems. Many years ago I discovered two things about this area. First, workers' comp and OH&S are of vital importance to people. Protecting, caring for and providing compensation to workers are important, noble and morally responsible endeavors. The second thing I learned was that no matter how much I knew about workers' comp/OH&S, there was always so much more to learn. This is an endlessly challenging area of study. My purpose, therefore, is not to lecture, but to reflect on the ideas and issues that are topical in this area... and to invite others to share in a learning experience. By adding your knowledge and insights, others with similar interests can participate in the discovery and study of this important domain.

His blog is "Workers' Compensation Perspectives".


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