Employer Responsibilities for Injuries at Work: What They Can and Can’t Do

After an injury at work, your employer is responsible for aspects of your medical treatment, job, and compensation. Learn your rights.

In one recent year, over 4.6 million workers in the United States received medical attention for work-related injuries.¹

If you were injured at work, it’s critical that you understand your employer’s responsibilities regarding your injuries. Employers must help you receive medical attention and other benefits for your accident.

Most American employers are required to carry a workers’ compensation insurance policy. If you’re eligible, your employer should provide the necessary forms and information so you can file a workers’ compensation claim.

You have a right to return to work after recovering from a workplace injury, and employers should try to accommodate medical restrictions for employees who have a temporary partial disability.

Your employer does not have to hold your job for you if it will create a hardship for the business. On the other hand, it’s illegal to retaliate against an employee for reporting a work injury or filing a worker’s comp claim.

Employer Responsibilities for Injured Workers

All employers have a general duty to provide their workers with a safe working environment. This is required by state and federal occupational health and safety laws. Most of these laws are enforced by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

OSHA is also tasked by the federal government to issue guidelines on safety issues and promote training in the workplace to prevent hazards and injuries.

Once an employee starts at their position, many employers must provide the worker with a safety manual that discusses the company’s safety expectations. Sometimes employers are also required to provide their employees with specific safety-related training and videos.

Employer Responsibilities Following a Work Injury

If you suffer a workplace injury, your employer should call 9-1-1 if you require emergency care or take critical steps to ensure you receive first-aid.  If you don’t require immediate medical care, your company should assist in making sure you receive some type of medical attention or treatment as soon as possible after your injury occurs.

In cases of severe industrial accidents, many employers are required to report them to OSHA. If an injury results in hospitalization or death, companies must notify OSHA of this within eight hours of learning such information.

In the hours and days after your work-related injury, your employer should gather information about it. Depending on the facts of your case, an employer may take photos of certain pieces of evidence or talk with other employees that witnessed your accident. Companies often gather this evidence if an injured worker files an injury claim or a workers’ comp claim.

Workplace injuries are often caused by: 

What is Workers’ Compensation?

Workers’ compensation is a mandatory insurance program that helps protect employees after workplace accidents. Most state laws require companies to provide workers’ compensation insurance if they have more than one employee.

If you suffer an injury at work and you’re a covered employee under your employer’s workers comp plan, then you have the right to file a workers’ compensation claim.

Workers’ Comp Covered Employees

Most employees are covered through their employer’s workers’ comp insurance policy, with some exceptions.

Workers not covered by a workers’ comp policy include:

  • Independent contractors
  • Volunteers
  • Farmworkers
  • Maritime employees
  • Railroad employees
  • Seasonal or casual workers

It’s your employer’s duty to provide you with a workers’ compensation claim form upon your request.

Return the completed form to your employer. Your company then has to send the form to its insurance carrier, and the carrier will determine your eligibility.

The insurance company must notify you, usually within one to two weeks, whether you’re entitled to workers’ compensation coverage.

Benefits for Injured Employees

Your employer’s workers’ comp insurance covers expenses directly related to a workplace injury.

In particular, workers’ compensation benefits include:

  • Medical Benefits: These pay for your medical expenses and medical bills related to the treatment of your medical condition.
  • Disability Wage Replacement: The specific amount of wage replacement you’ll receive depends on whether you suffered a temporary disability or a permanent disability.
  • Disability Lump-Sum: Injured workers who suffer a permanent loss of use of a body part or function may be awarded a lump-sum amount based on a medically determined impairment rating.
  • Vocation Training: You can receive vocational support, at no cost or at a discounted cost, if you can’t return to the job you had before your injury and need to learn a new position.
  • Death Benefits: When a worker is fatally injured on the job, their family may be eligible for help with burial expenses and some replacement of the deceased worker’s wages.

When Workers Return with Work Restrictions

In some cases, injured workers can return to work but in a restricted role. A “restriction” means that the employee performs a less demanding role than the one they filled before their injury.

Consider, for example, an electrician whose primary role is servicing residential homes. The worker suffers a light back sprain one day while on the job. The electrician’s doctor informs that the employee can still work, albeit in a limited capacity.

The employer must accommodate the injured worker and provide the person with a restricted role, if there is a job available that complies with the worker’s medical restrictions. For example, a clerical position.

If you return to work in a restricted role, your employer doesn’t have to pay you at the same rate as it did before your work injury.

Using the example of the injured electrician, the hourly wage difference between a licensed electrician and a telephone receptionist is substantial. Worker’s comp should pay a wage replacement benefit at a rate that is 2/3 the difference between your pre-injury (electrician) role and the light-duty (receptionist) role.

Your Doctor Determines Your Return Date

Please keep in mind that it’s your doctor, and not your employer, that determines whether or not you can return to work on a restricted basis.

Your company can’t make you return to work after a work injury. Your doctor must approve of a restricted role before your obligated to work on that basis.

You’re also not required to fill a temporary role that exceeds the restrictions outlined by your physician. But, you do have to accept a position with work requirements that fit within these restrictions, even if it’s boring or “made up” work just to keep you coming in to work.

If you reject a work position that your doctor approves, you’ll risk termination of benefits under your employer’s workers’ compensation system.

Trial Returns to Work

If you’re not certain if you can return to work on a restricted basis, you can see if your doctor and employer can agree on a trial return to work.

A trial return simply means that you go back to work, either in a limited role or in your pre-injury position, to see if you’re healthy enough to perform the job at hand.

Most state laws say that a trial period can’t exceed nine months in duration.

If during the trial period, you find that you can’t perform the job that you’re asked to fill, you can decline the work until you’ve fully recovered from your work injury without losing your rights to receive workers’ comp benefits.

Providing Reasonable Accommodations

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) might provide injured workers with some added protections if they return to work on a restricted basis.

The ADA says that if a worker returns to work with a disability, the employer must provide that worker with reasonable accommodations. A reasonable accommodation is essentially a change or alteration to a job or work environment so that the disabled worker can perform the essential functions of a role.

Under the ADA, a disability is a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more of a person’s major life activities.

Holding Jobs for Injured Workers

Most states don’t require employers to keep an injured worker’s job open until they recover from a work-related injury. Most laws also don’t require an employer to offer an employee a position similar to their pre-injury job, once they’re ready to return to work.

Workers’ compensation laws also say that an employer can legally fire an injured employee if they have to miss work because of their injury. For example, a small business may fire you if your absence from work creates a hardship for the company.

Let’s say you’re a full-time grill cook for a popular diner. If you broke a leg slipping on food accidentally dropped by a server, you could be out of work for six weeks or more. The diner can’t afford to go without a full-time cook for six weeks, so it’s legal for them to terminate your employment and hire a new cook.

Your worker’s comp lost wage benefits should continue until you’re medically cleared to work.

Rights to Reinstatement

While most states don’t require employers to hold jobs open for injured workers, a few states require employers to rehire an injured worker if that person can return to work within a reasonable time. The requirement to take a worker back on after an injury is often referred to as a worker’s right to reinstatement.

For example, Montana law says that an employer must provide rehire preferences to an injured employee who can return to work within two years of a work-related accident.

Some states also prohibit companies from firing workers while they are recovering from their work accident.

Unemployment Benefits for Workers with No Job

If you were injured at work and your employer has filled your position with someone else, you can likely collect unemployment benefits through your state’s unemployment insurance program.

You can collect these benefits provided that you:

  • Can return to work
  • Are actively looking for work
  • Did not voluntarily leave your job

Most states will not allow a person to receive unemployment benefits and workers’ compensation benefits at the same time.

Retaliation for Workers’ Comp Claims

While most states don’t require employers to protect an injured worker’s job, employers under no circumstances can retaliate or discriminate against a worker for reporting a workplace injury or illness.

It’s also against the law for employers to have policies in place that would discourage a worker from reporting an injury or cause a worker to fear some sort of retaliation for reporting a work injury.

With that said, there is some controversy over employee incentive programs and the reporting of workplace injuries. Some incentive programs provide workers with bonuses or additional compensation if there is a low number of reports regarding work injuries.

These programs, though, sometimes discourage a worker from reporting an accident. The idea is that if workers report every single work-related accident that occurs, then they run the risk of not receiving a bonus for a limited number of safety reports.  So far, though, such incentive programs are not against the law.

Get Help from an Attorney

Employers are often great at helping employees that suffered a job injury. You can file your claim with and receive benefits from your employer’s insurer. You can then focus on your medical treatment and get healthy so that you can return to the workforce.

Not all employers go to bat for an injured worker. They may dispute that the employee’s injuries occurred on the job, deny the employee’s rights to file a workers’ comp claim, or they may demand that an injured worker report to work.

If your employer or their workers’ comp insurance company is trying to deny or minimize your injury claim, contact an experienced workers’ compensation attorney. A local attorney knows your state’s workers’ compensation laws, the benefits you’re entitled to, and what your employer can and can’t do.

Most personal injury lawyers provide a free consultation. You have the opportunity to get good legal advice at no cost and with no obligation. Your health comes first. Your job is not that far behind. Protect both by contacting an experienced attorney for help.

Dustin Reichard, Esq. is an experienced attorney with 20 years of work in the legal field. He’s admitted to the Illinois State Bar and the Washington State Bar. Dustin has worked in the areas of medical malpractice, wrongful death, product liability, slip and falls, and general liability. Dustin began his legal career as a JAG... Read More >>