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Safety Risks in the Changing Workplace

Small businesses can remedy these critical safety risks in the modern workplace.
By: | August 8, 2017

The age spectrum of the American workforce is widening. Older, retirement-eligible employees are staying on the job longer, sometimes due to financial constraints, and sometimes simply because they want to. Meanwhile, Millennials are making up a larger proportion of payrolls. By 2025 this generation will constitute 40 percent of the American workforce.

The definition of a “workplace” is also expanding. Technology is revolutionizing where, when and how we work, with more employees doing their jobs from home or on the road. While these changes can certainly open up business opportunities, their convergence also increases risk for unprepared employers.

“As the workforce changes, workplace safety risks are also morphing,” said Woody Dwyer, Workers’ Comp Lead, Risk Control, Travelers. “These changes mean employers have to adjust the way they think about keeping workers safe and well.”

In particular, small businesses face unique challenges, balancing safety and wellness against operational needs while they fight to stay competitive. But even they can leverage limited resources to improve safety for employees no matter where, when or how they work.

Here are some ways to remedy key safety risks in the modern workplace:

Safety Risk #1: A Changing Workforce

Woody Dwyer, Workers’ Comp Lead, Risk Control

The average age of the American worker is slowly moving upward as Baby Boomers delay retirement. While employers get to hold on to the knowledge, skills and expertise of their veterans a little longer, they also have to consider safety challenges that become more prevalent with older workers.

“Injury frequency and severity are higher for both new, young workers as well as older, retirement-eligible workers,” Dwyer said. “But the two groups may have different experiences and different mindsets, so their attitudes toward and awareness of safety might be different. Therefore, you need to tailor training differently.”

Remedy: Though the approach may vary, it all comes down to training and reinforcing the safety expectations and culture.

“For an older population, practicing the principles of ergonomics can be impactful,” Dwyer said. Continual safety training and instruction around proper ergonomics is paramount, even for longtime employees. Employers shouldn’t assume that more experienced workers know how to move safely. Reinforcements, reminders and course corrections have value.

“Different companies have different safety practices, and the physical capabilities of workers nearing or past retirement age will be different from those of a recent graduate,” Dwyer said.

With young workers, building safety awareness can begin even before hiring.

“Job descriptions should reflect an emphasis on safety. And behavioral interviewing can identify safety-minded candidates, by asking them how they have responded to risk in previous work scenarios,” Dwyer said.

Carrying through an emphasis on safety during onboarding also drives the message home for younger and older workers alike. Onboarding should consist of hands-on training and practice. For a small retail store, for example, this could include practicing proper reaching and lifting techniques, and safe ladder use.

Safety Risk #2: Tech Revolution

Wearables and sensors have become popular tools for both safety and wellness.

On construction sites or in manufacturing, for example, proximity sensing can alert a worker if they are too close to a piece of machinery or moving equipment, or let a supervisor know if a worker has fallen. There are many sensor-based safety devices on the market, many of them wearable. Wearable fitness trackers and sit-stand desks have also gained popularity as tools to promote overall wellness in the workplace.

Small businesses may be more likely to take advantage of these latest tech tools because they aren’t encumbered by large, complex existing systems; they can change and adapt more easily. And incorporating cutting edge tech can also help to attract talent.

But there is risk involved if these companies don’t do their due diligence.

Remedy: “Be a smart consumer of technology,” Dwyer said.

“Will a piece of technology provide long term value for you? How will you implement it? How will you store and protect the data?  Will your workers accept it?” There are generational differences in attitude toward any type of tracking device. Millennials are more willing to give up personal data if they can see a benefit in it.

Employers can also provide guidelines on how to use new tools. For sit-stand desks, for example, workers should switch positions regularly to minimize stress on the body. Using a foot bar when standing can also help to take pressure off the lower back.

“Some reports say sitting is the new smoking, but standing for long periods is not good for the body either,” Dwyer said.

Safety Risk #3: Open to Distraction

Open workspaces foster collaboration — but can also usher in distraction. Especially in an office setting where workers may be on the phone frequently, an open workspace can be counterproductive.

The more distracted workers are, the more susceptible they may be to slips, trips and falls — one of the most common causes of workplace injuries.

Remedy: Dwyer recommends having designated quiet work areas where employees can escape the noise.

Companies should also have policies to restrict the use of mobile devices in hazardous work areas such as active construction sites, manufacturing areas, or while driving.

“Cubicle and desk design matter in an office setting, too,” he said. “Consider the design and layout of your floor plan, and work with your furniture vendor to make sure everyone will have the space to do their jobs comfortably.

Safety Risk #4: Borderless Business

Thanks to cloud technology and globalization, everything is interconnected, and even small businesses are likely to have some type of international footprint. Which means more trains, planes and hotel stays for employees.

Travel imposes its own stresses on the body and can cause extra fatigue. It might involve late-night driving or being in unfamiliar environments, which increases risk of injury.

Controlling workers’ environments while they’re on the road may not be possible, but employers can provide training to improve safety and security awareness while traveling.

Remedy: “Ergonomics and situational awareness matter out of the office too,” Dwyer said.

To help workers cope with fatigue and navigate unfamiliar places, companies should schedule work to help avoid late hours while traveling and encourage employees to get adequate rest before driving. They can also encourage mindfulness.

“When in strange new places, you need to have a heightened sense of awareness and alertness because you can’t count on the familiar to keep you safe,” Dwyer said.

Even in familiar settings, applying ergonomics reduces risk of injury.

“Use rolling bags when possible, or backpacks that distribute weight evenly, which can reduce pressure on the back when you’re traveling all day. Proper footwear also helps to improve comfort and to reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls,” he said.

Hotel rooms and meeting areas may also be more dimly lit. Workers on the road can protect their eyes by seeking spaces with proper lighting.

Address Evolving Risks through Ongoing Engagement

These are just four of the challenges small businesses will face as workplace and workforce risks continue to evolve, but these and many workplace safety risks can be mitigated in part by a focus on overall well-being.

In addition to providing safety training, implementing new tools and technologies, and developing policies and procedures, investing in employees’ wellness also builds trust and loyalty while helping to prevent injuries. As rising medical expenses drive up claims costs, prevention can help win the day for small businesses with little margin to spare.

“Many small businesses think they don’t have the money for wellness programs, but it can be done in small and simple ways,” Dwyer said.

Offering biometric screens at work, organizing company walks, working with local gyms to provide discounts, or simply gathering resources on wellness for employees to access on their own can benefit employees’ health.

Investing in wellness initiatives can in turn improve employee engagement with other efforts around ergonomics and safety.

Travelers helps small businesses effectively improve workplace safety by attracting and hiring safety-minded candidates, onboarding and training new employees, and continually supporting and engaging those employees through Travelers Workforce AdvantageSM, its comprehensive approach to safety and workers’ comp management.

“The approach hits the three key areas where employers can maximize their safety message: hiring, onboarding and training, and continual engagement,” Dwyer said. No matter how the workforce and workplace continue to evolve, putting safety first will always pay off for employers.

To learn more, visit https://www.travelers.com/resources/workplace-safety/helping-employers-manage-a-safer-workforce.aspx.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Travelers. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




The Travelers Companies, Inc. (NYSE: TRV) is a leading provider of property casualty insurance for auto, home and business. A component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Travelers has approximately 30,000 employees and generated revenues of approximately $28 billion in 2016. For more information, visit www.travelers.com.

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Scenario

The Betrayal of Elizabeth

In this Risk Scenario, Risk & Insurance explores what might happen in the event a telemedicine or similar home health visit violates a patient's privacy. What consequences await when a young girl's tele visit goes viral?
By: | October 12, 2020
Risk Scenarios are created by Risk & Insurance editors along with leading industry partners. The hypothetical, yet realistic stories, showcase emerging risks that can result in significant losses if not properly addressed.

Disclaimer: The events depicted in this scenario are fictitious. Any similarity to any corporation or person, living or dead, is merely coincidental.

PART ONE: CRACKS IN THE FOUNDATION

Elizabeth Cunningham seemingly had it all. The daughter of two well-established professionals — her father was a personal injury attorney, her mother, also an attorney, had her own estate planning practice — she grew up in a house in Maryland horse country with lots of love and the financial security that can iron out at least some of life’s problems.

Tall, good-looking and talented, Elizabeth was moving through her junior year at the University of Pennsylvania in seemingly good order; check that, very good order, by all appearances.

Her pre-med grades were outstanding. Despite the heavy load of her course work, she’d even managed to place in the Penn Relays in the mile, in the spring of her sophomore season, in May of 2019.

But the winter of 2019/2020 brought challenges, challenges that festered below the surface, known only to her and a couple of close friends.

First came betrayal at the hands of her boyfriend, Tom, right around Thanksgiving. She saw a message pop up on his phone from Rebecca, a young woman she thought was their friend. As it turned out, Rebecca and Tom had been intimate together, and both seemed game to do it again.

Reeling, her holiday mood shattered and her relationship with Tom fractured, Elizabeth was beset by deep feelings of anxiety. As the winter gray became more dense and forbidding, the anxiety grew.

Fed up, she broke up with Tom just after Christmas. What looked like a promising start to 2020 now didn’t feel as joyous.

Right around the end of the year, she plucked a copy of her father’s New York Times from the table in his study. A budding physician, her eyes were drawn to a piece about an outbreak of a highly contagious virus in Wuhan, China.

“Sounds dreadful,” she said to herself.

Within three months, anxiety gnawed at Elizabeth daily as she sat cloistered in her family’s house in Bel Air, Maryland.

It didn’t help matters that her brother, Billy, a high school senior and a constant thorn in her side, was cloistered with her.

She felt like she was suffocating.

One night in early May, feeling shutdown and unable to bring herself to tell her parents about her true condition, Elizabeth reached out to her family physician for help.

Dr. Johnson had been Elizabeth’s doctor for a number of years and, being from a small town, Elizabeth had grown up and gone to school with Dr. Johnson’s son Evan. In fact, back in high school, Evan had asked Elizabeth out once. Not interested, Elizabeth had declined Evan’s advances and did not give this a second thought.

Dr. Johnson’s practice had recently been acquired by a Virginia-based hospital system, Medwell, so when Elizabeth called the office, she was first patched through to Medwell’s receptionist/scheduling service. Within 30 minutes, an online Telehealth consult had been arranged for her to speak directly with Dr. Johnson.

Due to the pandemic, Dr. Johnson called from the office in her home. The doctor was kind. She was practiced.

“So can you tell me what’s going on?” she said.

Elizabeth took a deep breath. She tried to fight what was happening. But she could not. Tears started streaming down her face.

“It’s just… It’s just…” she managed to stammer.

The doctor waited patiently. “It’s okay,” she said. “Just take your time.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. “It’s like I can’t manage my own mind anymore. It’s nonstop. It won’t turn off…”

More tears streamed down her face.

Patiently, with compassion, the doctor walked Elizabeth through what she might be experiencing. The doctor recommended a follow-up with Medwell’s psychology department.

“Okay,” Elizabeth said, some semblance of relief passing through her.

Unbeknownst to Dr. Johnson, her office door had not been completely closed. During the telehealth call, Evan stopped by his mother’s office to ask her a question. Before knocking he overheard Elizabeth talking and decided to listen in.

PART TWO: BETRAYAL

As Elizabeth was finding the courage to open up to Dr. Johnson about her psychological condition, Evan was recording her with his smartphone through a crack in the doorway.

Spurred by who knows what — his attraction to her, his irritation at being rejected, the idleness of the COVID quarantine — it really didn’t matter. Evan posted his recording of Elizabeth to his Instagram feed.

#CantManageMyMind, #CrazyGirl, #HelpMeDoctorImBeautiful is just some of what followed.

Elizabeth and Evan were both well-liked and very well connected on social media. The posts, shares and reactions that followed Evan’s digital betrayal numbered in the hundreds. Each one of them a knife into the already troubled soul of Elizabeth Cunningham.

By noon of the following day, her well-connected father unleashed the dogs of war.

Rand Davis, the risk manager for the Medwell Health System, a 15-hospital health care company based in Alexandria, Virginia was just finishing lunch when he got a call from the company’s general counsel, Emily Vittorio.

“Yes?” Rand said. He and Emily were accustomed to being quick and blunt with each other. They didn’t have time for much else.

“I just picked up a notice of intent to sue from a personal injury attorney in Bel Air, Maryland. It seems his daughter was in a teleconference with one of our docs. She was experiencing anxiety, the daughter that is. The doctor’s son recorded the call and posted it to social media.”

“Great. Thanks, kid,” Rand said.

“His attorneys want to initiate a discovery dialogue on Monday,” Emily said.

It was Thursday. Rand’s dreams of slipping onto his fishing boat over the weekend evaporated, just like that. He closed his eyes and tilted his face up to the heavens.

Wasn’t it enough that he and the other members of the C-suite fought tooth and nail to keep thousands of people safe and treat them during the COVID-crisis?

He’d watched the explosion in the use of telemedicine with a mixture of awe and alarm. On the one hand, they were saving lives. On the other hand, they were opening themselves to exposures under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. He just knew it.

He and his colleagues tried to do the right thing. But what they were doing, overwhelmed as they were, was simply not enough.

PART THREE: FALLING DOMINOES

Within the space of two weeks, the torture suffered by Elizabeth Cunningham grew into a class action against Medwell.

In addition to the violation of her privacy, the investigation by Mr. Cunningham’s attorneys revealed the following:

Medwell’s telemedicine component, as needed and well-intended as it was, lacked a viable informed consent protocol.

The consultation with Elizabeth, and as it turned out, hundreds of additional patients in Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, violated telemedicine regulations in all three states.

Numerous practitioners in the system took part in teleconferences with patients in states in which they were not credentialed to provide that service.

Even if Evan hadn’t cracked open Dr. Johnson’s door and surreptitiously recorded her conversation with Elizabeth, the Medwell telehealth system was found to be insecure — yet another violation of HIPAA.

The amount sought in the class action was $100 million. In an era of social inflation, with jury awards that were once unthinkable becoming commonplace, Medwell was standing squarely in the crosshairs of a liability jury decision that was going to devour entire towers of its insurance program.

Adding another layer of certain pain to the equation was that the case would be heard in Baltimore, a jurisdiction where plaintiffs’ attorneys tended to dance out of courtrooms with millions in their pockets.

That fall, Rand sat with his broker on a call with a specialty insurer, talking about renewals of the group’s general liability, cyber and professional liability programs.

“Yeah, we were kind of hoping to keep the increases on all three at less than 25%,” the broker said breezily.

There was a long silence from the underwriters at the other end of the phone.

“To be honest, we’re borderline about being able to offer you any cover at all,” one of the lead underwriters said.

Rand just sat silently and waited for another shoe to drop.

“Well, what can you do?” the broker said, with hope draining from his voice.

The conversation that followed would propel Rand and his broker on the difficult, next to impossible path of trying to find coverage, with general liability underwriters in full retreat, professional liability underwriters looking for double digit increases and cyber underwriters asking very pointed questions about the health system’s risk management.

Elizabeth, a strong young woman with a good support network, would eventually recover from the damage done to her.

Medwell’s relationships with the insurance markets looked like it almost never would. &

Bar-Lessons-Learned---Partner's-Content-V1b

Risk & Insurance® partnered with Allied World to produce this scenario. Below are Allied World’s recommendations on how to prevent the losses presented in the scenario. This perspective is not an editorial opinion of Risk & Insurance.®.

The use of telehealth has exponentially accelerated with the advent of COVID-19. Few health care providers were prepared for this shift. Health care organizations should confirm that Telehealth coverage is included in their Medical Professional, General Liability and Cyber policies, and to what extent. Concerns around Telehealth focus on HIPAA compliance and the internal policies in place to meet the federal and state standards and best practices for privacy and quality care. As states open businesses and the crisis abates, will pre-COVID-19 telehealth policies and regulations once again be enforced?

Risk Management Considerations:

The same ethical and standard of care issues around caring for patients face-to-face in an office apply in telehealth settings:

  • maintain a strong patient-physician relationship;
  • protect patient privacy; and
  • seek the best possible outcome.

Telehealth can create challenges around “informed consent.” It is critical to inform patients of the potential benefits and risks of telehealth (including privacy and security), ensure the use of HIPAA compliant platforms and make sure there is a good level of understanding of the scope of telehealth. Providers must be aware of the regulatory and licensure requirements in the state where the patient is located, as well as those of the state in which they are licensed.

A professional and private environment should be maintained for patient privacy and confidentiality. Best practices must be in place and followed. Medical professionals who engage in telehealth should be fully trained in operating the technology. Patients must also be instructed in its use and provided instructions on what to do if there are technical difficulties.

This case study is for illustrative purposes only and is not intended to be a summary of, and does not in any way vary, the actual coverage available to a policyholder under any insurance policy. Actual coverage for specific claims will be determined by the actual policy language and will be based on the specific facts and circumstances of the claim. Consult your insurance advisors or legal counsel for guidance on your organization’s policies and coverage matters and other issues specific to your organization.

This information is provided as a general overview for agents and brokers. Coverage will be underwritten by an insurance subsidiary of Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd, a Fairfax company (“Allied World”). Such subsidiaries currently carry an A.M. Best rating of “A” (Excellent), a Moody’s rating of “A3” (Good) and a Standard & Poor’s rating of “A-” (Strong), as applicable. Coverage is offered only through licensed agents and brokers. Actual coverage may vary and is subject to policy language as issued. Coverage may not be available in all jurisdictions. Risk management services are provided or arranged through AWAC Services Company, a member company of Allied World. © 2020 Allied World Assurance Company Holdings, Ltd. All rights reserved.




Dan Reynolds is editor-in-chief of Risk & Insurance. He can be reached at [email protected]