Checking Out Solutions
Tamara Ulufanua-Ciraulo likes to think of the workers at her grocery store chain as “industrial athletes” — and all of the company’s safety, loss prevention, workers’ compensation and return-to-work programs are geared toward having them perform at their competitive best.
“The grocery industry is a physically demanding job, and you have to be fit, like an athlete — they are lifting, running, pushing, stretching, straining every day,” said Ulufanua-Ciraulo, director of insurance at Stater Bros. Supermarkets in San Bernardino, Calif.
The grocer supports its industrial athletes not only with measures to expedite their recovery after injuries, but also with a myriad of incentive programs to avoid injuries altogether, Ulufanua-Ciraulo said — “We’re pushing safety in all avenues of the store.”
Indeed, the team has developed a wide swath of innovative programs, from safety awareness training using dedicated onsite loss prevention consultants, to incentivizing employees for loss prevention, to expanding modified duty to accelerate workers’ return-to-work, to clamping down on workers’ comp fraud, prescription abuse and drug selling.
The results have been impressive, with a reduction in injuries and a drop in workers’ comp costs.
Unlike most grocers, Stater Bros. has four dedicated loss control professionals from The Hartford, its workers’ comp insurance provider. The consultants work onsite to aid the grocer’s team in controlling exposure, reducing losses, improving operations and resolving compliance issues. The Hartford group reports directly to Steve Toscano, Stater Bros.’ supervisor of support services.
“We all look at the claims we have, which gives us the ability to identify and systematically eliminate risks that come on our plate as soon as they are trending,” Toscano said. “That approach is what gives us the edge.”
For example, after analyzing knife cuts within the meat department, The Hartford group suggested that meat cutters wear wire mesh gloves, resulting in an immediate reduction in lacerations.
“We are the only grocer in California to have all of our meat cutters state-certified,” Ulufanua-Ciraulo said.
“We care about our brothers and sisters. We care about our team. Our great leader Jack H. Brown always tells us, ‘Do the right thing for the right reasons.’ And we do.” — Tamara Ulufanua-Ciraulo, director of insurance, Stater Bros. Markets
The grocer is particularly focused on teaching workers how to be more aware of safety, said Mark Ramer, safety supervisor for Stater Bros.’ distribution center. For example, the company developed a concise directive on how to best handle hazardous materials: “Double bag it. Label it. Tag it.”
Playing on the “industrial athlete” theme, Stater Bros. offers the ICE PACK Program. ICE PACK is a lengthy but fitting acronym for “Industrial athlete Care and Evaluation working towards Prevention, Aid, Consultation and Knowledge.” The grocer offers free first aid, advice, taping, wrapping, and icing for aches, pains and injuries to distribution and transportation employees four days a week, in excess of two hours per day, provided by physical therapists. It’s “like an athletic training room with preventive care,” Ulufanua-Ciraulo said.
Because of this program, along with other safety initiatives, injuries at the distribution center fell from 118 in 2012, to 68 in 2014. The ICE PACK program was added to the transportation department this April, and since that time, there have been zero recordable driver injuries.
Incentive programs for safe practices are a big deal at Stater Bros. Its “Safety Recognition Program” offers an increasing number of incentives for every year a store has had zero recordable industrial injuries, with rewards such as catered employee appreciation parties, Stater Bros. gift cards, in-store drawings, and Stater Bros. apparel gift certificates. In 2015, 25 stores exceeded the two-year mark of zero recordable industrial injuries, and the number of stores that logged one year without any reportable workers’ compensation claims rose from 33 in 2014, to 53 in 2015.
Stater Bros.’ employees share their appreciation for the store’s safety leadership during a party celebrating two accident-free years at Store #139 in Murrieta, Calif.
Stater Bros.’ “Jump Start Program” targets stores that have difficulty controlling workers’ comp injuries. The company recognizes store employees with incremental rewards on a fast-paced scale to keep employees engaged and thinking about safety, and as a result, the number of injuries have declined.
There is also an incentive program for safe practices for distribution center workers. Employees who work without a reportable injury during each quarter are eligible for a drawing of Stater Bros. gift cards, and 10 percent of all eligible employees receive a gift card. In addition, every employee who completes one year without a workers’ comp injury receives a gift card.
The grocer has also expanded its comprehensive modified work program for the transportation and distribution centers, from five days to seven days, to better accommodate injured employees’ current work week schedules.
Employees are temporarily accommodated at retail locations based on their restrictions, and receive various types of scheduled training for the modified duty period, including training videos with testing and discussions that focus on body parts susceptable to injuries. In addition, third-party occupational therapists train and monitor the recovery progress of workers.
The expanded program complies with Stater Bros.’ collective bargaining agreement with the Teamsters Union, as workers have been able to maintain their regular rate of pay without moving to long-term status, Ulufanua-Ciraulo said.
“I’m sure our workers recognize how much the company is concerned about them personally and that we’re trying to ensure a smooth transition in their return-to-work, by allowing them to have a modified schedule for a period of time,” she said.
The grocer is also particularly aggressive in its prescription monitoring, going above and beyond checking the state’s database system to make sure physicians are not over-prescribing medications to its workers. The company also conducts drug tests to determine whether workers are actually taking their drugs and not selling them, Ulufanua-Ciraulo said.
For example, if the grocer spends $4,000 a month in prescriptions for an individual worker who then tests “zero” because they are not taking their medications, Stater Bros. asks the treating physician to review the scripts.
The grocer has been able to overturn a “complex regional pain syndrome” claim because the doctor stated the employee could not do without the medications based on the diagnosis — even though the worker was actually not taking them.
Stater Bros. has implemented reviews for complex pharmacy claims to identify employees who may need an prescription drug intervention. It also uses “narcotics contracts” with employees to set expections for use of prescription medications.
Under the program, the grocer saw a reduction in prescription medication for “high utilizers” over a four-month period, resulting in savings of $100,000.
The company also closely monitors for workers’ comp fraud. The grocer learned about several Facebook and YouTube posts showing Shawna Palmer, a Stater Bros. employee who was off duty on a workers’ comp claim for an fractured toe, subsequently competing in local beauty pageants in high heels without any apparent discomfort.
The grocer worked with its third-party administrator, Sedgwick Claims Management Services Inc., and the California Department of Insurance to collect more evidence of Palmer’s fraud, leading to her arrest last year.
In September, Palmer pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of workers’ comp fraud and was sentenced to 36 months’ probation, 50 hours of community service and ordered to pay a $1,000 fine and more than $5,000 restitution. The unusual story was picked up by news outlets nationally.
Because of its multi-faceted efforts, Stater Bros. has experienced a decline in workers’ comp claims frequency, Ulufanua-Ciraulo said. Workers’ comp claims decreased 12.5 percent from 2013 to 2014, on top of falling 7 percent from 2012 to 2013.
The grocer also has an extensive wellness program that includes an annual health and education fair to promote healthy and safe lifestyles, with onsite biometric screenings and ergonomic assessments of work stations. Stater Bros. was recognized as a 2015 Platinum Level recipient of the American Heart Association’s Fit-Friendly Worksite Award, for its commitment to providing physical activity and wellness opportunities to employees.
Toscano said that the grocer is successful because everyone works very closely to collaborate on risk management, safety and workers’ comp issues.
“I also credit the success of our programs to the leadership of our company and those individuals who have set such high standards in my current role,” he said.
“These individuals have encouraged our team to continue to improve programs to meet the needs of our employees.”
Ulufanua-Ciraulo said her team’s approach fits with the company’s culture, summed up nicely in a Stater Bros. TV commercial jingle used years ago:
“Up in the morning, stay late at night. … Hard work and value, that is the key.”
“That is who we are,” she said. “We care about our brothers and sisters. We care about our team. Our great leader Jack H. Brown always tells us, ‘Do the right thing for the right reasons.’ And we do.”
Read more about all of the 2015 Teddy Award winners:
Revamped Program Takes Flight: The American Airlines and U.S. Airways merger meant integrating workers’ compensation programs for a massive workforce. The results are stellar.
Checking Out Solutions: From celebrating safety success to aggressively rooting out fraud and abuse, Stater Bros. Markets is making workers’ comp risk management gains on multiple fronts.
Revitalizing the Program: In three years, the Columbus Consolidated Government was able to substantially reduce workers’ compensation claims costs, revamp return-to-work and enhance safety training.
Spreading Success: Barnabas Health wins a Teddy Award for pushing one hospital’s success in workers’ comp systemwide.