FREDERICTON (Canadian OH&S News)
A brouhaha is brewing between injured workers in New Brunswick and the province’s health and safety regulator.
A group of injured workers are calling on the province’s ombudsman to launch a public inquiry into the practices of WorkSafeNB, alleging the organization is acting in the best interests of business, not injured workers, leading to a loss of payments, exacerbation of injuries and even cases of injured workers committing suicide, and a public inquiry is the only way to bring these issues to light.
Tom Barron, a labour specialist and the group’s spokesperson, said that the organization has been overriding the advice of family doctors and specialists in an effort to rush people back into the workplace and reduce the costs of providing treatment, creating a revolving door of treatment for injured workers, who are diagnosed by doctors and get a treatment course recommended which is overruled by WorkSafeNB. Workers are then put into a rehabilitation centre, prescribed pain killers and sent back to work without ever having the injury properly addressed, he said, leading to further injuries.
“When WorkSafeNB takes an injured worker into their facilities, the first thing their medical advisors tell them is they’re on the wrong medication. They take them off the medication that’s prescribed by their family physicians and put them on OxyContin, Percocet, in some instances morphine, Demerol — all of the narcotic medications,” Barron said, adding that he knows workers who have been rushed back into the workplace while still taking opioids.
While the province’s ombudsman’s office is not able to launch such a major investigation as the province is without an ombudsman, it is aware of the issue and has raised concerns about WorkSafeNB’s policy on non-compensable injuries or illnesses in the past, explained Jennifer Murray, director of legal and corporate services for the ombudsman’s office.
“The appeals tribunal makes the same decision repeatedly and the injured workers keep having to go to the appeals tribunal even though the decision is a foregone conclusion,” she said.
Dr. Barry Wecker, a family physician from Plaster Rock, N.B., said that of his case load of about 15 injured workers, most have issues regarding treatment from WorkSafeNB.
“It’s just a constant battle with them,” Wecker said. “They have a policy book and they follow the policy book and it overrides anything and everything that I would suggest. It’s not just me, it’s specialists, other physicians, physiotherapists, chiropractors.”
In 2002, Andrew Allaby had been working as a shop supervisor at the Irving saw mill for 23 years when he slipped and fell. He was diagnosed with chronic pain and doctors will not operate on the nerve that was pinched in the fall because it could put him in a wheelchair.
He said he spent $10,000 in lawyer fees to get WorkSafeNB to restore his compensation after he was deemed fit for work and sent back to Irving, where he could not drive because of the large amount of painkillers he was on.
“They kept telling me it was in my head, that I wasn’t experiencing the pain and that they had all kinds of excuses and they wouldn’t listen to a word I would tell them … Their agenda was to get you through those eight weeks and out the door; told my employer there was nothing wrong with me and that I was not trying to co-operate with them,” Allaby said after spending 16 weeks over two visits at the Grand Bay rehab facility. “I understand that people will abuse the system, but people who legitimately need it are all getting tarred with the same brush.”
Beverly Spears, director of communications for WorkSafeNB, said in an email that the organization would co-operate fully if an inquiry is launched, noting WorkSafeNB accepted 86 per cent of claims it adjudicated last year, and more than 96 per cent of workers with a return-to-work goal last year returned or were ready to return following rehabilitation.
“Our claims decisions are made only after thorough and thoughtful information gathering and analysis by a team of highly-qualified multidisciplinary staff, including a case manager, medical advisor, physiotherapist, occupational therapist and/or rehabilitation therapist,” she added. “Their decisions are based on evidence gathered through a review of the Form 67 – Report of Accident or Occupational Disease; medical information; diagnostic tests; and, reports from health care providers such as family physicians, medical advisors, specialists, surgeons, chiropractors, occupation therapists and physiotherapists.”
The turmoil comes less than a year after the embattled organization was forced to repay almost $4 million to 901 workers after the province’s Court of Appeal deemed WorkSafeNB was wrong to claw back injury benefits from recipients of the Canada Pension Plan.