Public Sector Safety

Protecting the Peacekeepers

Public safety employees face higher risk, but tend to flout safety rules.
By: | November 1, 2013 • 7 min read

A decade ago, the City of Knoxville paid an annual workers’ compensation bill of over $5 million. In recent years, the bill has averaged less than $2 million, thanks to professional risk management and top-down buy-in to the safety culture from the entire municipal government.

Knoxville is one of the many municipalities, counties and states to cultivate safe work environments for the nation’s 18.5 million full-time public employees. “The cheapest and most effective risk management is avoiding the risk in the first place,” said Chuck Wright, president of Travelers Public Sector Services. Risk management is itself the product of a deliberate and coordinated effort by a lot of smart people, including engineers, risk managers, ergonomists, purchasing managers and health care providers, Wright said.

Still, the public sector is an area where risk managers rightly fear the workers’ compensation exposures. And just as all politics is local, so is the most acute public sector injury risk.

Full-time local government workers reported the nation’s highest rate of work-related illnesses and injuries (6.1 percent) in 2011, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. State workers clocked in at 4.6 percent and private sector workers at 3.5 percent in 2010.


The Affordable Care Act, which stresses the kind of health and wellness programs public entities are adopting, will probably not affect workers’ compensation programs significantly, according to Steve Wurzelbacher, research industrial hygienist in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies.

“Most sensible people don’t rush into burning buildings or run toward a bad guy with a gun.”
— Jim Bueermann, president, Police Foundation

Police and firefighters, who do inherently dangerous jobs, incur the most frequent and severe workers’ compensation claims of all public sector workers. “Most sensible people don’t rush into burning buildings or run toward a bad guy with a gun,” said Jim Bueermann, president of the Police Foundation. Police are almost 100 percent guaranteed to get hurt on the job, he said, because of the physical nature of their jobs and because they work around people who want to hurt them.

However, many workers’ compensation claims, even among the superhero class of workers, are for “ordinary” injuries and conditions, such as car accidents, repetitive motion and joint injuries, as well as stress- and obesity-related conditions.

Gary Eastes, Knoxville’s risk and benefits manager and a 2012 Risk & Insurance® Teddy Award winner, attributes much of his city’s drop in workers’ compensation claims to safety’s recent visibility on the municipality’s collective radar screen. Over many years and in small increments, Knoxville adopted many of OSHA’s workplace safety recommendations. Now, it performs routine safety inspections, including weekly spot inspections at intersections for seat belt use.

Knoxville now boasts almost 100 percent compliance for seat belt use, even among police, who are notorious for dissing the law they are charged with enforcing, according to John Chino, area senior vice president and member of the Public Sector leadership team at Arthur J. Gallagher.

The bulky hardware on officers’ service belts — baton, sidearm, radio, cuffs, Taser — can make buckling up awkward, uncomfortable, and slow at a time when speed counts, said Rich Roberts, director of special operations and public information at the International Union of Police Associations, AFL-CIO.

Cops Don’t Wear Seat Belts

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more officers died in traffic incidents in 2010 than from any other cause, and 42 percent weren’t wearing seat belts. Many of the other 58 percent may have been left gravely injured and possibly, disabled. This is a tragedy for the officer and a huge financial burden for the insurer, Roberts said, especially for young, otherwise healthy officers who can expect many years of disability.

“Officers should always wear seat belts,” Roberts said.

“Seat belts are our most visible safety rule,” Eastes said, and officers who flout this rule are likely to flout others.

“Police started to take safety rules seriously when Knoxville’s civilian management put its foot down about seat belts,” he said.

Knoxville’s new wellness culture also helped tame workers’ compensation claims. The city employs three full-time certified ergonomists and a physical therapy team, which works with firefighters on safe ways to perform emergency medical services, such as carrying people down stairs and moving them out of crushed cars. Its on-site physical therapist works with the city’s medical team, which aids complex treatments, such as that for a diabetic with a knee injury.

Technology also offers some solutions, Eastes said, such as single-driver automated sanitation trucks that replace “the two guys hanging off the back of the truck,” who are subject to shoulder and back injuries from repeatedly lifting heavy loads. The technology will pay for itself in reduced workers’ compensation costs, he said.


As a matter of due diligence, said Travelers’ Wright, public entities should always perform routine checks on employees, such as confirming that those who drive for their jobs hold current licenses and have maintained clean driving records.

Unions and Politics

Contrary to the expectation that unions and municipalities are naturally at odds, Wright said, they actually share a common interest in employees’ well-being. This applies even in potentially explosive return to work cases for injured workers. Lost time from work costs municipalities dearly, both in overtime costs for other workers to pick up the slack and in medical benefits.

“For the city’s sake and the worker’s sake, everyone’s goal is getting workers back to work at the right time.”
— Chuck Wright, president, Travelers Public Sector Services

“For the city’s sake and the worker’s sake, everyone’s goal is getting workers back to work at the right time,” Wright said. Coordinated medical treatment and careful case management, combined with proactive risk control services, can determine the “right time” in each individual case.

“What helps this formula be successful is selecting the right partners to coordinate medical care,” said Joe Boures, president of managed care company Healthcare Solutions. “Research has proven that over time, not properly managing care leads to significantly increased medical costs and delayed return to work.”

In states with particularly generous workers’ compensation laws, such as, Illinois, Florida, New York and especially California, workers may have a financial disincentive to return to work promptly, said Dan Guth, an area vice president at Arthur J. Gallagher.

Police and firefighters who belong to the Public Employees Retirement System can collect 100 percent of their salary, tax free, for up to a year for each industrial injury; other public sector workers generally can collect two-thirds of their average weekly salaries. Some public entities try to return compromised employees to light duty or part-time work to save costs and hasten recovery, but many simply keep them out of work until they get medical clearance to return to their jobs.

Even though the cop or firefighter wins financially for a year by protracting their disability leave, said the Police Foundation’s Bueermann, most prefer to return to work as soon as they’re able, since a long furlough often heralds the end of their careers, especially for older workers.

California’s generous workers’ compensation laws also produce a slew of “additional body parts” claims, especially, as the statistics suggest, for teachers.

“An attorney may expand the original back or knee injury claim to include a sleep disorder, internal injury, stress or psych claim or sexual dysfunction,” Guth said. Municipalities and their insurers should scrutinize the claim for legitimacy.

Although it happens rarely, unions can be an obstacle to workplace safety in the area of safety incentives, said Chino.

“Some public agencies consider a reward system of money or extra time off for individual employees who use personal safety equipment, but the unions object on the grounds of special treatment for a few employees.”

When Self-Insurance Works

The Mesquite, Texas, School District meets the criteria for self insurance. It employs 5,400, so it has a sufficiently large pool of insureds. It has a strikingly low incidence rate — 1.11 of every 100, far below the 6.1 percent of its national cohort. Almost all of its 182 to 200 claims per year are from slips, trips and falls, plus violence from the occasional agitated student, said James Huckaby, the district’s administrative officer of operations and risk management. Those are the kind of injuries that inevitably slip through the district’s fine net of safety education; careful housekeeping; low-cost, easy-access medical facilities; wellness programs; and safety best practices. Its workers’ compensation costs have been stable for several years, averaging about $700,000 per year.


Like Knoxville, which is also self-insured, Mesquite’s top-level elected officials support the safety programs that minimize on-the-job injuries. Both entities have the support infrastructure to administer their self-insured programs and cash reserves to pay claims.

These attributes — strong infrastructure, a sufficiently large insured universe, top-level support, safety buy-in from the workforce, predictably low claims and fiscal discipline — point to a municipality in a good position to self-insure, said Victoria Nolan, risk and benefits manager for Clean Water Services in Oregon.

“Public entities may want to self-insure because it’s cheaper than commercial insurance, or they can manage their programs better or both,” Nolan said, but they should scope their readiness to take on the considerable financial and administrative responsibilities first.

“An entity that hires a third-party administrator can give up any cost savings on the claims side to administrative fees,” she said. “A feasibility study will show if it’s a good choice.”

** This story is Part II of a three-part series.Read Part I, Stretching Risk Management, and Part III, Cutting Down Agriculture Risk. **

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Management

The Profession

Pinnacle Entertainment’s VP of enterprise risk management says he’s inspired by Disney’s approach to risk management.
By: | November 1, 2017 • 4 min read

R&I: What was your first job?

Bus boy at a fine dining restaurant.

R&I: How did you come to work in this industry?

I sent a résumé to Harrah’s Entertainment on a whim. It took over 30 hours of interviewing to get that job, but it was well worth it.

R&I: If the world has a modern hero, who is it and why?


The Chinese citizen (never positively identified) who stood in front of a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square on June 5, 1989. That kind of courage is undeniable, and that image is unforgettable. I hope we can all be that passionate about something at least once in our lives.

R&I: What emerging commercial risk most concerns you?

Cyber risk, but more narrowly, cyber-extortion. I think state sponsored bad actors are getting more and more sophisticated, and the risk is that they find a way to control entire systems.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you ever engaged in?

Training and breaking horses. When I was in high school, I worked on a lot of farms. I did everything from building fences to putting up hay. It was during this time that I found I had a knack for horses. They would tolerate me getting real close, so it was natural I started working more and more with them.

Eventually, I was putting a saddle on a few and before I knew it I was in that saddle riding a horse that had never been ridden before.

I admit I had some nervous moments, but I was never thrown off. It taught me that developing genuine trust early is very important and is needed by all involved. Nothing of any real value happens without it.

R&I: What about this work do you find the most fulfilling or rewarding?


Setting very aggressive goals and then meeting and exceeding those goals with a team. Sharing team victories is the ultimate reward.

R&I: What is the most unusual/interesting place you have ever visited?

Disney World. The sheer size of the place is awe inspiring. And everything works like a finely tuned clock.

There is a reason that hospitality companies send their people there to be trained on guest service. Disney World does it better than anyone else.

As a hospitality executive, I always learn something new whenever I am there.

James Cunningham, vice president, enterprise risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment, Inc.

The risks that Disney World faces are very similar to mine — on a much larger scale. They are complex and across the board. From liability for the millions of people they host as their guests each year, to the physical location of the park, to their vendor partnerships; their approach to risk management has been and continues to be innovative and a model that I learn from and I think there are lessons there for everybody.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?

We are doing a much better job of getting involved in a meaningful way in our daily operations and demonstrating genuine value to our organizations.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?

Educating and promoting the career with young people.

R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?

Being able to tell the Pinnacle story. It’s a great one and it wasn’t being told. I believe that the insurance markets now understand who we are and what we stand for.

R&I: Who is your mentor and why?


John Matthews, who is now retired, formerly with Aon and Caesar’s Palace. John is an exceptional leader who demonstrated the value of putting a top-shelf team together and then letting them do their best work. I model my management style after him.

R&I: What is your favorite book or movie?

I read mostly biographies and autobiographies. I like to read how successful people became successful by overcoming their own obstacles. Jay Leno, Jack Welch, Bill Harrah, etc. I also enjoyed the book and movie “Money Ball.”

R&I: What is your favorite drink?

Ice water when it’s hot, coffee when it’s cold, and an adult beverage when it’s called for.

R&I: What does your family think you do?

In my family, I’m the “Safety Geek.”

R&I:  What’s your favorite restaurant?

Vegas is a world-class restaurant town. No matter what you are hungry for, you can find it here. I have a few favorites that are my “go-to’s,” depending on the mood and who I am with.

If you’re in town, you should try to have at least one meal off the strip. For that, I would suggest you get reservations (you’ll need them) at Herbs and Rye. It’s a great little restaurant that is always lively. The food is tremendous, and the service is always on point. They make hand-crafted cocktails that are amazing.

My favorite Mexican restaurant is Lindo Michoacan. There are three in town, and I prefer the one in Henderson as it has the best view of the valley. For seafood, you can never go wrong with Joe’s in Caesar’s Palace.

Katie Dwyer is an associate editor at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]