Column: Workers' Comp

Ergonomic Sense

By: | August 29, 2017 • 2 min read
Roberto Ceniceros is senior editor at Risk & Insurance® and chair of the National Workers' Compensation and Disability Conference® & Expo. He can be reached at [email protected] Read more of his columns and features.

Federal ergonomic standards that existed 16 years ago for a fleeting two months continue to benefit employers and workers even though they were never implemented.

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The government’s bark eventually proved bigger than its bite, which is a good thing, because 16 years ago the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was ready to take a big bite out of employers’ wallets.

The threat of that bite, though, helped propel improved ergonomic practices, which evolved and continue to eliminate injuries, costs and lost work days.

President Bill Clinton signed ergonomic standards into law four days before vacating the White House in January 2001. His successor, President George W. Bush, scuttled the rules two months later.

The rules championed by President Clinton required companies with two or more related injuries to evaluate for ergonomic hazards and reduce exposures by, for example, limiting worker task repetitions or modifying assembly lines.

The back and forth between Presidents Clinton and Bush followed at least a decade of organized labor pushing for ergonomic standards. Labor and Democrats argued they would benefit employers and workers by eliminating workplace injuries.

OSHA estimated the standards would cost employers $4.5 billion annually, but save them $9 billion.

Employers and Republicans fought adoption, arguing they would cost more than $100 billion.

President Bush agreed, calling the new regulations “unduly burdensome and overly broad.”

The ergonomics rules helped fuel this nationwide awareness. They helped sound a wake-up call for employers.

Most distressing, the regulations required paying injured workers nearly their full salary while they were out mending their injuries.

Heck, if that arrangement was available today I might be on the disabled list receiving workers’ comp benefits right now while complaining of a sore-wrist injury rather than standing at my desk writing this column.

You can see why the regulations threw employers into a panic until President Bush calmed their fears.

The standards that never became law still impact businesses and workers though.

They arrived in an era when the frequency of cumulative trauma claims was already a problem. Awareness of the injuries was already building among labor, workers themselves, regulators, claimants attorneys, and claims payors.

Employers learned, during this era, that they were paying for back and carpal tunnel surgeries for simple injuries that could have been prevented with good ergonomics, and treated with physical therapy.

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The ergonomics rules helped fuel this nationwide awareness. They helped sound a wake-up call for employers, recalled Sean McDonald, Workforce Strategies Ergonomics Practice Leader at Marsh Risk Consulting.

“Even though it fell apart as a rule, it became known that it was a good business practice,” he said.

At least since 2001, worker injury statistics show cumulative trauma claims have been gradually declining, similar to the long-term decline in overall workers’ comp claims frequency.

This is especially good because today’s injuries tend to be more severe than they were 16 years ago. The rise in comorbidities and an aging workforce make them more challenging today.

So that increased awareness and attention to the need for safety measures to prevent ergonomic-related injuries is even more valuable now than it was back then. &

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

2017 Teddy Awards

The Era of Engagement

The very best workers’ compensation programs are the ones where workers aren’t just the subject of the program, they’re a part of it.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 5 min read

Employee engagement, employee advocacy, employee participation — these are common threads running through the programs we honor this year in the 2017 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Awards, sponsored by PMA Companies.

A panel of judges — including workers’ comp executives who actively engage their own employees — selected this year’s winners on the basis of performance, sustainability, innovation and teamwork. The winners hail from different industries and regions, but all make people part of the solution to unique challenges.

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Valley Health System is all-too keenly aware of the risk of violence in health care settings, running the gamut from disruptive patients to grieving, overwrought family members to mentally unstable active shooters.

Valley Health employs a proactive and comprehensive plan to respond to violent scenarios, involving its Code Atlas Team — 50 members of the clinical staff and security departments who undergo specialized training. Valley Health drills regularly, including intense annual active shooter drills that involve participation from local law enforcement.

The drills are unnerving for many, but the program is making a difference — the health system cut its workplace violence injuries in half in the course of just one year.

“We’re looking at patient safety and employee safety like never before,” said Barbara Schultz, director of employee health and wellness.

At Rochester Regional Health’s five hospitals and six long-term care facilities, a key loss driver was slips and falls. The system’s mandatory safety shoe program saw only moderate take-up, but the reason wasn’t clear.

Rather than force managers to write up non-compliant employees, senior manager of workers’ compensation and employee safety Monica Manske got proactive, using a survey as well as one-on-one communication to suss out the obstacles. After making changes based on the feedback, shoe compliance shot up from 35 percent to 85 percent, contributing to a 42 percent reduction in lost-time claims and a 46 percent reduction in injuries.

For the shoe program, as well as every RRH safety initiative, Manske’s team takes the same approach: engaging employees to teach and encourage safe behaviors rather than punishing them for lapses.

For some of this year’s Teddy winners, success was born of the company’s willingness to make dramatic program changes.

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Delta Air Lines made two ambitious program changes since 2013. First it adopted an employee advocacy model for its disability and leave of absence programs. After tasting success, the company transitioned all lines including workers’ compensation to an integrated absence management program bundled under a single TPA.

While skeptics assume “employee advocacy” means more claims and higher costs, Delta answers with a reality that’s quite the opposite. A year after the transition, Delta reduced open claims from 3,479 to 1,367, with its total incurred amount decreased by $50.1 million — head and shoulders above its projected goals.

For the Massachusetts Port Authority, change meant ending the era of having a self-administered program and partnering with a TPA. It also meant switching from a guaranteed cost program to a self-insured program for a significant segment of its workforce.

Massport’s results make a great argument for embracing change: The organization saved $21 million over the past six years. Freeing up resources allowed Massport to increase focus on safety as well as medical management and chopped its medical costs per claim in half — even while allowing employees to choose their own health care providers.

Risk & Insurance® congratulates the 2017 Teddy Award winners and holds them in high esteem for their tireless commitment to a safe workforce that’s fully engaged in its own care. &

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More coverage of the 2017 Teddy Award Winners and Honorable Mentions:

Advocacy Takes Off: At Delta Air Lines, putting employees first is the right thing to do, for employees and employer alike.

 

Proactive Approach to Employee SafetyThe Valley Health System shifted its philosophy on workers’ compensation, putting employee and patient safety at the forefront.

 

Getting It Right: Better coordination of workers’ compensation risk management spelled success for the Massachusetts Port Authority.

 

Carrots: Not SticksAt Rochester Regional Health, the workers’ comp and safety team champion employee engagement and positive reinforcement.

 

Fit for Duty: Recognizing parallels between athletes and public safety officials, the city of Denver made tailored fitness training part of its safety plan.

 

Triage, Transparency and TeamworkWhen the City of Surprise, Ariz. got proactive about reining in its claims, it also took steps to get employees engaged in making things better for everyone.

A Lesson in Leadership: Shared responsibility, data analysis and a commitment to employees are the hallmarks of Benco Dental’s workers’ comp program.

 

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]