Q&A: The first five minutes

Gabrielle Lis

What happens in the first five minutes after injury affects health outcomes and costs. And your time starts...

There’s been an incident in the workplace. A worker is taken ill or injured. What happens in the next five minutes will affect their health outcomes and your workers’ compensation costs. Intimidated? Don’t be. Our simple Q & A guide will help you take the appropriate action, whatever the circumstances.

Q: Really? The first five minutes matter?

A: Absolutely. In many claims that result in poor outcomes and litigation, the initial conversation is the starting point for blame and resentment that fuel the adversarial process. This conversation sets the tone for everything that follows.

Imagine that a worker hurts their back while lifting a load on the factory floor.

If the supervisor... The worker will...
  • Is impatient;
  • Demonstrates suspicion about the injury;
  • Offers no advice about the treatment; and
  • Offers no practical assistance
  • Either downplay the problem; OR
  • Talk the problem up, to get it taken seriously;
  • Be less likely to get appropriate treatment; AND
  • Feel slighted, resentful, 'on their own', determined to get something out of the system.
  • Is visibly concerned about the workers' wellbeing;
  • Asks about how the worker is feeling and listens to his or her responses;
  • Suggests a relevant medical practitioner; and
  • Drives the worker to and from care
  • Know that their problem is being taken seriously;
  • Give a realistic assessment of the problem;
  • Receive the appropriate treatment;
  • Feel cared for; and
  • Be much less likely to initiate and adversarial claim.
Q: How should we conduct the first conversation?

A: Unless the situation is an emergency (see below) you need to:

  • Ask the worker how he or she is feeling and what you can do to help them.
  • Show genuine interest.
  • Remember: it’s not easy to judge the severity of an injury. Don’t pre-judge the incident.
  • Always take the situation seriously.
  • Give the worker all the information they need.
  • Most importantly – listen, listen, listen.

First impressions matter: make the most of them.

Q: How can we make sure that the first conversation goes according to plan?

A: The busy supervisor is generally the one who deals with the first five minutes. This means that supervisors need to understand the importance of their role, and they do this better when trained on how to deal with the situation.

Training needs to acknowledge that:

  • Yes, the supervisor is very busy and it’s hard to take on another problem with everything that needs to be done; BUT
  • Drawn out, adversarial claims are even more time consuming; SO
  • The supervisor needs to give the injured worker their full attention. The look in the supervisor’s eye is the most important response. If it says, “I want to help you,” a good foundation is laid.
Q: When an emergency occurs, what should our procedure be?

A: If the worker is in serious pain or an emergency has occurred, dial 000 immediately and provide first aid where appropriate. You will also need to contact the worker’s family, accompany the worker to hospital and let co-workers know what is happening.


In one American study, while 36% of workplace injuries were reported as emergencies, only about 20% of injured workers were given company assistance in getting to treatment. That “on their own” 16% probably feel like they got a pretty raw deal! 

Q: What if the problem is urgent, but not an emergency?

A: First impressions are still vital. Arrange an immediate visit to the doctor, or drive the worker to hospital if that’s more appropriate. Don’t leave them there alone: your company provides important moral support, and it also allows you to ensure that they get home safely. While you’re at it, pay the bill: it’s a worthwhile investment in goodwill.

Q: How about smaller, non-urgent incidents?

A: It’s still really important to take good care of the injured or ill worker. First up, establish whether or not the worker can stay at work, or whether they need to go home. Discuss the problem with them, bearing in mind that they might not want to cause any trouble. This is also a good time to brainstorm alternative duties if required. And if the worker – or your reporting systems – requires a medical appointment, arrange it at the worker’s convenience.

Q: Can we use the same approach for every worker?

A: Consistency is important, but you also need to be aware of the fact that people have different personalities and needs.

A stoical person They'll downplay their illness or injury because they don't want to make a fuss You need to be on the lookout for signs that they're not coping as well as they pretend to be, and make sure that they get appropriate medical attention.
An anxious person They'll be worried and nervous. They might sound like they're overreacting and assuming the worst. Or they might seem withdrawn and pessimistic. Listen to their concerns, and give them extra attention they need. Reassure them that you're concerned about their health and wellbeing too, and that you'll assist them to get the right treatment.
A problem person By that sinking feeling "Oh, I don't want to deal with another problem from YOU." Take a deep breath and LISTEN to their needs. Problem workers are the most likely to respond poorly if they feel slighted, or that their needs haven't been met. Go the extra mile–good early care will reduce everyone's workload down the track.

Match the approach to the person for best results.

Q: Is it good practice to prioritise looking after the worker, at the expense of accident investigation?

A: No. Of course the worker’s wellbeing is very important but one of the best ways to ensure that workers don’t get injured in the first place is to collect as much information as possible about the physical causes of workplace incidents.
Let the worker know it is important to understand what happened, so the problem can be prevented in the future.  Find out the basic information, and set up a time to explore this further with the worker.