Column: Workers' Comp

Cumulative Trauma Claims are Down: Thank Ergonomic Standards

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.

Advertisement




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.

Advertisement




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

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.

Advertisement




That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.

Advertisement




Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

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