Saint Peter’s Healthcare System Wins a National Award for Workers’ Comp Excellence. Here’s How They Accomplished Such a Feat

The team at Saint Peter’s Health Care System revamped its workers’ comp program to great success — reducing injuries by 58% in four years.
By: | August 2, 2021

When Linda Vance, manager of employee health at Saint Peter’s Health Care System, learns of a workplace injury, she asks herself one question: How can we prevent this from happening again?

“Each injury was investigated. Each injury was something we learned from,” she said. “We took every single person, one by one, and asked what happened? What could we do to keep this from happening again?”

Her desire to drive down injury rates was sorely needed when she came to Saint Peter’s in 2017. At the time, the hospital was in the process of transforming its workers’ comp program after leadership changes and, in 2016, brought in PMA Management Corp., a subsidiary of PMA Companies, as its new TPA.

Leadership knew that the workers’ compensation and employee safety programs were in dire need of an upgrade, but they didn’t know where to begin. From an aging workforce to a struggling safety program and a lack of return-to-work options for injured workers, the program faced a myriad of challenges.

“We didn’t have a vision, that’s what I would say. There was no real vision on where we wanted to take the program,” said Jorge Malave, insurance and risk management coordinator at Saint Peter’s.

Then came Vance. As a registered nurse and a certified occupational health nurse case manager, she knew what it took to not only get employees back to work after an injury but also how to prevent workplace accidents from occurring in the first place.

She also came into the role with experience reinventing a program from the ground up, having previously developed and implemented occupational health programs for Target distribution centers across the country and TEVA Pharmaceuticals.

“I realized what I had done in my other roles could be done anywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hospital or a distribution center or a pharmaceutical manufacturing site. Injury prevention is key wherever I’ve been,” Vance said.

“We took every single person, one by one, and asked what happened? What could we do to keep this from happening again?” — Linda Vance, manager of employee health, Saint Peter’s Health Care System 

The team started with one employee, one injury at a time and began conducting thorough investigations. In 2017, the team rolled out a new return-to-work program, and in 2018 and 2019, the employee health and safety programs were implemented.

Soon after, the team saw results, achieving a 58% injury reduction rate over four years. It is this kind of commitment and results that has also named St. Peter’s Health Care System as a 2021 Teddy Award winner as well. The Teddy Award is sponsored by PMA Companies.

Saint Peter’s dedication to employee health and wellness paid off in spades when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, enabling the hospital system to quickly implement new safety protocols, provide additional mental health resources to employees and offer support for COVID long-haulers through one of the hospital’s treatment programs.

Making Return-to-Work a Top Priority

Linda Vance, manager of employee health, Saint Peter’s Health Care System

One of the first challenges Saint Peter’s tackled when revamping its workers’ compensation program was the company’s return-to-work program.

Prior to transformation, the workers’ compensation program struggled to find meaningful modified duty assignments for injured workers.

Now, the program proactively consults with providers, managers and the injured workers themselves to make sure modified duty assignments can be found, even if they have to look outside of the department.

“Each individual injury is evaluated,” Vance said. “We’ve actually saved jobs that would have run out of the FMLA time.”

When a nurse practitioner fell and tore her rotator cuff after slipping on icy pavement, Vance helped her find a modified duty assignment that would accommodate her injury even after her manager insisted there was nothing available.

Vance found her a nurse case manager position within the unit that allowed the employee to return to work making phone calls and doing documentation work while her arm healed. After a successful year as a nurse case manager, she was able to transition back to full duty.

“She accomplished great things and kept her position until she was able to go back to work,” Vance said.

Bringing Employee Safety to the Fore

In addition to developing a robust and creative return-to-work program, Saint Peter’s developed an all-encompassing workplace safety program covering everything from working to prevent common hospital injuries, like those caused by improper patient handling and slips and falls, to addressing issues like mental health issues and preparing employees workplace violence training.

As they were developing the program, Saint Peter’s worked with its TPA to look at claims data and determine what types of injuries were occurring.

“We did a lot of loss control for the first two years,” Malave said. “My job was pinpointing where we were lacking, what we needed to do to move forward.”

They found two of the most common injuries in health care — slips and falls and improper patient handling — were issues at Saint Peter’s.

Consequently, safety committee members began doing more frequent rounds to identify tripping hazards and new lift equipment was purchased. The team also implemented a safe patient handling training program with leadership from nurses within the company to make sure workers knew how to move patients without injuring themselves.

“Not only did we increase our inventory for equipment, but also Linda had a vendor come in and do some training on proper use of equipment. Everybody was trained on how to use it, how to do safe lifts, what the proper ways to move patients are, technique wise,” Malave said.

“Between the new equipment and the training, that definitely helped our safe patient handling.”

These changes have resulted in a 66% decrease in slips and falls and a 67% reduction in safe patient handling claims.

In addition, the safety program has also worked to address emerging risks within the sector: workplace violence and mental health amongst health care workers.

On the workplace violence end, Saint Peter’s has implemented both handle with care, de-escalation and active shooter training for its employees.

These types of trainings are becoming increasingly important for health care workers. Of the approximately 25,000 workplace assaults that occur annually, 75% occur in health care settings, according to the American Journal of Managed Care.

“Patients can become combative, confused, or situations can escalate. If someone is angry, it can get out of control. So, we started first with the emergency department and then throughout the organization, getting employees the handle with care and de-escalation training they need,” Vance said.

When it comes to mental health programs for health care workers, Saint Peter’s boasts a robust Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that offers unlimited, private counseling sessions for employees. It also has a self-care sanctuary room, which offers employees a chance to escape from work during their breaks with massage chairs, soothing music and hot tea.

Both of these resources can go a long way in preventing provider burnout, which has been on the rise during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Protecting Employees During a Global Pandemic

Jorge Malave, insurance and risk management coordinator, Saint Peter’s Health Care System

All of Saint Peter’s workplace safety and employee health and wellness programs were put to the test when the COVID-19 pandemic struck.

As a hospital, Saint Peter’s knew its workers were at increased risk for contracting the virus as they treated patients who were sick with COVID-19.

“It was a very stressful time,” Vance said. “After leaving the hospital, I would call employees at night, giving them their COVID test results, taking them out of work, or getting them back to work. We had the employee health team that would just follow each employee every day to see how they’re doing and assist them in any way we could.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Saint Peter’s pulled together an incident response team that met daily. The team helped rapidly implement new safety procedures and disseminate new information about the virus to employees. The hospital implemented universal masking and eye protection requirements in March 2020, and employees were trained in how to properly don and doff PPE.

The workers’ compensation program’s dedication to making sure many employees maintained their jobs also translated to the pandemic.

When employees were at risk of being furloughed, Employee Health Services trained St. Peter’s personnel to conduct screening and contact tracing efforts, COVID testing, collecting COVID data, fit testing and providing COVID-19 vaccination once it was available amongst other things.

Additionally, the program’s strong behavioral health focus extended into its pandemic response. Nurses created a support group called “Masks Off” to help manage the emotional toll the pandemic took, and the self-care sanctuary room became a place where employees could escape from the pandemic.

“There were so many who were so terrified and very stressed,” Vance said. “We had meditation areas and so many things in place for the employees’ wellbeing to let them know we were there for them.”

Despite all these efforts, some workers still contracted the virus. For any employees with long-haul COVID, where symptoms persist for months after the initial infection, the hospital established a COVID-19 recovery program.

The program, which is aimed specifically at long-haulers, aims to develop individualized care plans focused on a patient’s medical, social and behavioral health needs. It’s available to the public as well as hospital employees.

“We did a lot of loss control for the first two years. My job was pinpointing where we were lacking, what we needed to do to move forward.” —Jorge Malave, insurance and risk management coordinator, Saint Peter’s Health Care System 

“It was developed from our senior leadership team and our physicians, and they formed a program for employees who were … not recovering as quickly as some others did,” Vance said.

“This program was comprehensive. It allowed for employees to be seen by pulmonologists, by cardiologists if needed. Physical therapy was a major part.”

While the transformation and the success Saint Peter’s workers’ compensation program has achieved even in the face of a pandemic may seem overwhelming, Vance said that it’s important to remember it began with small actions and a commitment to understanding how they could prevent every employee injury.

“Start with one person at a time; one employee at a time; one injury at a time,” Vance said. “One at a time. That’s what we did and it worked for us.” 

See the complete list of 2021 Teddy winners here.

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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