Concussions increasingly make today’s news headlines, especially in athletes playing contact sports like football. But concussions don’t only happen on the field — they are being reported more often in the workplace, too. And they can be complex and costly to treat.
What is a concussion?
A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head or whiplash that results in the head and brain moving rapidly back and forth.
“This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist in the skull, creating chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .
How serious are concussions when compared with other work-related injuries?
In 2016, 78 percent of SFM’s concussion claims involved lost time from work, compared with 15 percent for non-concussion claims.
Because the duration, symptoms, diagnostic testing and treatment in each case are so varied, concussions can be very complex and costly to treat.
What are the symptoms of a concussion?
Physical symptoms of concussions may include:
- Balance and visual problems
- Sensitivity to noise and light
- Tingling and numbness
- Ringing in the ears
Workers may report:
- Feeling mentally foggy or slowed down
- Having difficulty concentrating
- Being forgetful or confused
Those suffering from concussions might answer questions slowly or repeat questions. They may be irritable, sad, nervous or more emotional than normal. They may be drowsy, sleep more or less than usual, or have trouble falling asleep.
How long does it take to recover from a concussion?
Most cognitive issues related to mild concussions resolve within 7-10 days and go away completely after three months. However, 10-15 percent of sufferers experience longer-lasting symptoms, often referred to as post-concussion syndrome.
How do I accommodate an employee who has had a concussion?
Since a concussion isn’t a visible injury, employees might seem ready to return to regular work when they really aren’t. It’s important to respect any work restrictions. This could mean offering a shortened work day, breaks or fewer tasks and responsibilities.
The injured employee may be encouraged to rest and may initially need to reduce physical and cognitive exertion. In some cases, reducing work during the initial stages of healing may help the employee’s recovery.
After the employee returns to work, the doctor may recommend the employee avoid driving, heavy lifting, working with machinery or work from heights for a period of time. It's helpful if you can provide a calm, quiet work area where the lighting can be lowered if needed. It can also be helpful to provide them with a place to rest.
Keep in mind that rehabilitation therapy is key during recovery and may include speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, or a combination of the three, from one to four days per week.
Realize that their thinking, speech and reaction times might be slowed, and they may be less able to concentrate. They probably won't be as productive as usual at first, and their job tasks may need to be altered. But incrementally over time, the employee should be able to return to normal work.
It’s important to take the condition seriously, but it’s also important to be positive and reassuring with the employee about their recovery. The injured employee may be in a vulnerable state — scared and upset by their symptoms and worried they might worsen in the future. The anxiety just makes their situation worse.
Thankfully, most cognitive symptoms clear within two weeks and most patients recover fully within three months.
What are the common causes of concussions at work?
Concussions are often related to slips, trips and falls, strikes to the head, or motor vehicle accidents. Inanimate objects, such as falling boxes, might cause a strike to the head. In other cases students, patients or co-workers might strike an employee.
How can I prevent concussions among employees?
To prevent concussions in the workplace, encourage employees to take the following precautions:
- Remove tripping hazards. Make sure walkways and workspaces are free of clutter, cords, puddles of water or anything else that could cause a slip, trip or fall.
- Use proper signage to alert employees of wet surfaces.
- Use handrails when taking the stairs.
- Avoid standing on chairs, desks or tables. Use a step stool instead.
- Use caution when working from heights. Never stand on the top two steps of a ladder.
- If a job requires wearing a helmet, make sure it’s properly fitted and in good condition.
What should I do if an employee suffers a head injury?
If a head injury does occur, and you're an SFM policyholder, call the SFM Work Injury Hotline at (855) 675-3501 to report the injury and make sure the injured employee gets the proper care.
It’s crucial to get a thorough evaluation by a doctor who is trained to assess and treat concussions. Do not try to diagnose a concussion yourself.
For the best outcome, the injured employee should receive treatment from a provider who has experience with post-concussion syndrome.
This post was originally published on May 19, 2015, and updated on September 5, 2018.
This is not intended to serve as legal advice for individual fact-specific legal cases or as a legal basis for your employment practices.