Workers’ Compensation in the Dental Office

Workers’ compensation statutes are designed to award employees damages for injuries suffered during the normal course of their employment, and also to limit the employer’s liability for costly damages which could be awarded for personal injuries suffered by their employees.

There are some aspects to workers’ compensation law that all dental practices should be aware of, some of which pertain particularly to dental offices and their employees.   All employees are covered under the workers’ compensation statute in Massachusetts, and although  independent contractors are not covered,  it is difficult in the dental industry to avoid workers compensation coverage through labeling persons to work in the practice as independent contractors.  If someone who works at the office location is under direction and control of the practice or does not operate an independently established business they are covered by the workers’ compensation statute.

In dental offices, the issue of the coverage of carpal tunnel syndrome is important to consider when looking at what injuries an employee can claim workers’ compensation benefits for, particularly because many of the procedures performed by dentists, hygienists, and dental assistants require the use of hands and arms in repetitive movements.     The courts have made it difficult for any dental practice to avoid providing workers’ compensation benefits, either in part or in full, to dentists, hygienists and dental assistants for carpal tunnel syndrome, even if the employee worked for another practice for most of his or her career.   If it is an injury or disease occurring in the course of employment that is work-related the workers compensation benefits are allowable.    If a hand or arm injury occurs because of a non-work related incident, such as a car accident, a doctor is usually consulted to determine which is the predominant contributing cause of the hand or arm injury which interferes with treating patients, the non-work related incident or carpal tunnel disease.

Sometimes employees sue their employer for on-the-job intentional injuries to the employee, such as sexual harassment, and claim significant damages for intentional infliction of emotional distress.  Physical and emotional injuries suffered through sexual harassment cannot be claimed other than through the workers’ compensation system, though, and this significantly limits the amount of damages a plaintiff-employee can collect either before or after their employment is ended.

Other types of injuries claimed that happened during employment and were intentionally caused by another employee or the employer, such as defamation, invasion of privacy, and violations of civil rights, are not compensable under workers’ compensation.  Physical and emotional injuries are not the main focus of the injury claims, the courts reason.   Discrimination claims that an employee make against an employer are not compensable under workers’ compensation, and as a result damages for discrimination can  be greater in a civil lawsuit.

It is sometimes assumed that if an employee is out on workers compensation, then they automatically must be rehired after the injury and benefits ends.  That is not necessarily the case, and the employee must only be given a preference for rehiring for their job if there are vacancies.  Though the interaction of disability law and workers compensation law is sometimes complex, a worker who is totally disabled because of a workplace injury is not protected by disability discrimination laws if they cannot perform the essential functions of or her position.  If it is only a partial disability, then the employer may be required to give the employee a reasonable accommodation to a job they can perform.    The Family and Medical Leave Act only applies to practices with more than 50 employees, but it can provide some job protection for employees at larger practices.

In a workplace where sharp tools, high speed equipment, and hazardous materials exist, like in a dental practice, injuries do happen, but knowledge of the limits of workers compensation benefits is important for both the employer and the employee to understand.