If you’ve ever wondered what the field of occupational medicine involves, the key word is “work.”
“Occupational medicine looks at anything that has to do with work,” said Dr. Fred Scherr, the medical director of UCHealth Occupational Medicine Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “It can involve helping people with ergonomics or drawing up a blood-borne pathogen policy for a workplace or conducting surveillance for people who may be exposed to toxic chemicals through their work — anything that has to do with work that could affect an individuals’ health.”
Occupational injuries defined
An occupational injury occurs when an individual is injured while performing the expected scope and duties of a job. For instance, a ski instructor who suffers a knee injury while teaching or a delivery person who injures their back while picking up a heavy box will most likely be considered to have an occupational injury.
Some injuries aren’t as clearly linked to the expected duties of a job.
“Part of my job is to determine causation for any possible work-related injury and try to sort it out,” Scherr said. “Just because you have a possible injury occurring at work, doesn’t mean it’s always a work-related injury — work has to be the direct and primary cause for the injury.”
Navigating treatment and recovery
Once it’s determined that the injury is a result of work, Scherr helps the patient navigate various treatments and determines which conditions must be met before the patient can return to work.
“One of the biggest parts of my job is to help patients get through the system as safely and efficiently as possible, so they can get back to work,” Scherr said. “It’s a medical and legal system, and it can become convoluted.”
Receiving care through an occupational medicine claim isn’t the same as using private health insurance. For instance, some providers don’t accept occupational medicine or workers’ compensation injuries. The process can be confusing not only for patients but also for employers, especially small business owners.
“We’re a good resource to help with all of that,” Scherr. “If the patient or employer has questions, we can help them navigate the system.”
With a little preparation and thought, some on-the-job injuries can be avoided.
One of the most common occupational injuries is a lumbar strain or sprain. But sometimes, these injuries can be avoided through steps such as strengthening your core and warming up before lifting. A physical therapist can help with those exercises and also can review proper lifting technique and strategies.
For instance, take a minute to figure out how to move something before beginning. “It’s not going to slow you down, and it may prevent you from getting hurt,” Scherr said.
Working on prevention with employers
Various workplaces can benefit from the perspective of an occupational medicine professional. From mines and chemical plants to warehouses and offices, suggestions can be made for how to best keep employees healthy and safe.
“We can help identify risks and determine steps that can be taken to make sure those risks don’t impact people,” Scherr said. “If an employer keeps getting the same injury over and over from employees, they can have us take a look and figure out why that might be happening.”
What to do if you get injured
Even if you aren’t sure whether the injury is serious, it may be worthwhile to get it checked out and give written and verbal notice of the injury to your employer within four days of the injury. The employer would then file a claim with their insurance within 10 days.
“It’s really important that, if you feel like you sustained a work injury, you file a claim in a timely manner,” Scherr said. “Even if you feel like you’re doing OK, you can still come and see us and get evaluated, so if it does bother you down the road, a relationship with the reported work injury has been previously established, and it doesn’t seem like a new unrelated injury has occurred. And we may be able to help you get better faster, so there isn’t a bigger and possibly more problematic issue later.”