Safety Programs Can Control Workers Compensation Costs
Phillip M. Perry (Dec/Jan 10)
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Data entry workers, cashiers who scan orders, and others engaged in repetitive tasks are subject to carpal tunnel syndrome, which can spark workers comp claims. "In any situation involving repetitive work, I recommend job rotation," says Pam Hart, director of safety and wellness programs at Doherty Employer Services, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based human resources outsourcing firm. "You can also encourage frequent stretching and short breaks. Or switch hands regularly." She says negative effects of keyboarding can also be avoided by making sure workstations are structured properly so that worker's hands and wrists are kept straight. Consultants schooled in ergonomics can assist.
Additional risks come from many of the required day-to-day tasks in which workers regularly engage to do their jobs. "Be especially careful about any positions that require employees to lift, pull, or hold heavy items," says Claire Wilkinson, vice-president for global issues at the Insurance Information Institute. "Overexertion of this kind accounts for a large proportion of injuries."
Employees can be excellent sources of information on workplace hazards that should be addressed. "I highly recommend that retailers gather employee feedback throughout the safety program and incorporate employees into establishing a safe place to work," says Amy Trueblood, account manager at Awards Network, a LaPorte, Indiana-based organization that sells safety awards programs. She recommends discussion of topics such as how to avoid a known safety hazard, how an accident was recently prevented, or how a recent accident could be prevented in the future. "
Vital as safety programs are, they can be counterproductive if poorly managed. Here are four "don'ts" that Trueblood suggests:
• Don't set up safety goals that will encourage employees to not report accidents.
• Don't develop a safety program and then fail to establish benchmarks or track its success over time.
• Don't cap award earnings so that people slack off during periods during which they cannot earn safety gifts.
• Don't award safety gifts without considering the different tastes and preferences of employees.
The no-fault nature of workers comp laws usually means that employers find it difficult to defend against claims. But that doesn't mean that steps should not be taken to ferret out cases of clear fraud. Fraudulent activities result in increased workers comp exposure and higher premiums, and that can affect profits whether the employer is a small mom and pop operation or a national corporation.
"Workers compensation fraud comes in many forms," says Fox. "An injury can be staged. Or there can be simple malingering by an employee who is content collecting indemnity payments but who is really able to work. Or the employee may be collecting indemnity payments while working elsewhere." Insurance companies often contract with third parties to engage in surveillance that can be helpful in debunking workers comp fraud. For example, video footage may show the employee doing yard work or engaged in other physical labor that undermines an allegation of inability to work. Other detective work might uncover evidence that the worker has obtained employment elsewhere.
Employers should stay involved with the injury cases until the employees return to work. "Vigilance is absolutely key in managing workers compensation claims," says Fox. "It starts at the time of injury with an investigation to determine if a claim is compensable under workers compensation laws. Beyond that, you need to be involved after claims are filed." He suggests that if your claims are being managed by a third-party administrator or an insurance company, make sure that organization is keeping an eye on the claim, assuring the claimant is not working elsewhere and checking periodically with medical providers to assess the status of the claimant's medical condition.
Workers comp benefits are typically divided into medical - the reimbursement of doctor and hospital bills - and indemnity - payments for lost wages. "Controlling medical costs is very important because they now represent a much larger portion of total workers compensation costs than they did 20 years ago," says Fox. "And there is no indication that this trend will be reversed." He says you can contest medical procedures that seem too frequent or costly to the extent your state law allows. State law can also affect how you monitor the ability of the employee to work. In Pennsylvania, for example, you can require that the employee see a doctor of your choosing twice a year for that purpose.
One more thing: Don't treat accident victims like strangers. "Keep in mind that injured employees are staying at home, looking at ads from workers compensation attorneys on the TV and computer," says Moore. "So reach out to them. Call them. Send them get-well cards. Asking how they are doing is off-the-scale important. Except for your safety program, it's the best thing you can do to save money."
Safety programs have proven themselves effective tools for reducing workers comp costs, and employers have climbed aboard the bandwagon. "Safety has improved considerably over the years," says Wilkinson. "Employers are increasingly focused on making the workplace safer and reducing worker exposure to hazardous activities."
Keep in mind that safety doesn't happen by itself; it must be managed. "A safe work environment starts with the attitude of top management," says Moore. "Water runs downhill: If managers don't care about safety then employees won't." And the attitude of concern must be understood by all: "If your top managers don't communicate their concerns about safety then nothing else you do to reduce accidents will make any difference."