Column: Workers' Comp

Got Milk?

By: | November 1, 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.

On one side stand anti-immigrant activists, some calling illegal immigrant workers rapists and murderers needing instant deportation.

On the other side stands an industry facing a tightening labor market concerned about retaining immigrant laborers, many lacking legal work documentation yet skilled in performing dirty, dangerous jobs.

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That’s the situation facing the dairy industry, a labor-intensive milking and feeding business that helps sustain the nation. It is a story that illustrates employee safety and workers’ compensation themes as the industry increases efforts to keep its scarce workers on the job.

The Idaho Dairymen’s Assn., for example, recently launched a safety program that includes teaching workers how to think like the animals they work with, said Bob Naerebout, the association’s executive director.

“Anytime you have an employee — and we consider all employees to be key employees — absent from work, that means you have to replace them with somebody who is not as well trained,” Naerebout said.

“There is an indirect cost in all of that.”

Naerebout’s words should sound familiar to employers across all industries whose safety and disability management programs have increasingly become key to keeping scarce, skilled workers on the job.

“Anytime you have an employee — and we consider all employees to be key employees — absent from work, that means you have to replace them with somebody who is not as well trained.” — Bob Naerebout, executive director, Idaho Dairymen’s Association

Savvy risk managers also know the indirect costs resulting from worker accidents and the increased injury risks accompanying new, replacement workers unfamiliar with the workplace.

“The labor market is tight, so you increase your efficiency by keeping your trained labor there — not by having to bring in substitute labor or temporary labor,” Naerebout said.

Productivity concerns are just one reason dairy organizations increasingly emphasize safety. They face intensified scrutiny following serious accidents.

Skid loaders, used to move feed and manure, can crush dairy workers. Other employees drown in manure pits. Did I mention these are dirty, dangerous jobs?

Workers get kicked by cows and squeezed by their 1,500-pound mass. To protect themselves, dairy farms, like other employers, purchase workers’ comp insurance.

Meanwhile, agricultural operations view heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric as a threat while dairy associations lobby Washington for immigration reform.

“Those who lack proper documentation — we feel obligated to them, to try and get comprehensive immigration reform that will provide them legal status,” Naerebout said.

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There are also public education efforts.

The National Milk Producers Federation, for example, reports that half of all dairy farm workers are immigrants and losing them would double retail milk prices, costing the U.S. economy tens of billions of dollars.

Opposing their efforts are the anti-immigrant activists, like a radio host who dismisses dairy industry concerns over a tight labor market. Kick welfare recipients off the public dole and they will work dairy jobs, the radio host argues.

“We are one of the few organizations that is standing up to [the anti-immigrant rhetoric], advocating for immigration reform,” Naerebout said. But quelling those voices might prove even tougher than mitigating workers’ comp losses.

“I am not sure there is anything that would satisfy them,” Naerebout said. &

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.

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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.

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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]