September is national Pain Awareness Month — a perfect opportunity to speak with members about managing and avoiding pain and injury, especially if they work in physically demanding or dangerous jobs.
It's crucial that your members feel comfortable coming forward to address these issues to help avoid further harm or time off work. The board should always be prepared to provide members the information they need to seek treatment and protect themselves in the workplace.
Encouraging Members to Speak Up
Members might not always come forward when they're in pain or injured for fear of retaliatory measures or of being looked down upon by co-workers and managers. But concealing these problems can lead to further injury and cause stress, both of which can impact productivity and attendance. If members don't speak up, their supervisors risk making false assumptions about their performance, and the union doesn't have a chance to set up reasonable accommodations and guide them to appropriate treatment.
This is why it's key to cultivate trusting relationships that let members know they're supported. Consistent outreach (via email, newsletter or in person) on topics important to members solidifies the board's position as a knowledgeable and caring body. Soliciting regular feedback on how the board can be helpful — and following through on those suggestions — further establishes a bond.
Since some members try to keep quiet, ignore pain or only discuss injuries with close co-workers, train your union representatives to recognize relevant symptoms and encourage them to approach members about whether they need assistance. Ensure that both the board and its stewards know that reasonable accommodations can be made for nearly any job to support those dealing with pain or injury; the Department of Labor's Job Accommodation Network can assist with questions and suggestions.
Leveraging Health Insurance Benefits
Making sure members seek medical care to address pain and injuries begins with open enrollment. Provide robust information on insurance plan offerings to help members pick the coverage that's right for them.
From there, frequently remind them of what's available. This includes providing contact information for the plan administrator to ensure that treatments, medications or specialist visits are covered. Another reason members may avoid treating pain or injuries is because they fear out-of-pocket costs they can't afford, but talking to the right people can help alleviate these concerns. Remind members to review their medical bills carefully to verify that treatments were covered as expected. If not, encourage them to engage their doctors to help them navigate insurance denials.
Along with setting members up to make the most of their health benefits, educate them about the importance of self-care as a means of injury and pain avoidance. Share resources about healthy eating, fitness, meditation, stretching and nonmedical pain management options like ice or heat. Inform members of any health screenings or preventive care options available and urge them to take advantage.
Protections for Members
Union members have specific rights related to pain and injury outlined in their employment contracts. For example, members cannot be treated differently or discharged without "just cause," meaning that an employer cannot fire a member simply because they were injured or are dealing with pain. Remind your members that the board is in place to protect their interests and that you can help them deal with their employers. This includes addressing any concerns about on-site health or safety risks that could lead to pain and injury in the future.
Members are also protected by state and federal laws. Those with disabilities or nonspecific chronic pain that limits their ability to perform specific tasks may be covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). And each state has a workers' compensation program in place for those who were injured on the job. Tell members that if they're injured on the job, they should visit the doctor and also contact their union representative, who can act as a liaison between them and the board and can assist them in accessing any supplemental benefits the union may offer (such as a welfare fund) to aid them during recovery.
National Pain Awareness month provides an opportunity to begin or continue a dialogue with members about the board's role in protecting their interests, especially as it relates to pain and injury that impacts their work. Use this month to remind members of the benefits and protections available to them and encourage them to come forward — whether to the board or a union representative — to address their concerns and avoid long-term problems.
Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including serving as volume editor and lead author for SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and editor-in-chief of The Kanter Journal. Heather also blogs for two government-focused publications, GovLoop and NEOGOV, covering issues of importance to federal employees. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.