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Creating a zero injury culture

We see it all the time. A company advertises a job opening for a worker to load heavy boxes onto trucks. It would seem an easy position to fill when the applicant walks in looking like The Incredible Hulk. But what the company doesn't know is that the individual has a history of back trouble resulting in a number of workers' compensation injuries. For an employer to see trouble coming is virtually impossible if there is no pre-employment medical testing by a doctor versed in occupational medicine, one who understands the job requirements and knows what it takes physically to do the job.

A doctor trained in occupational medicine can also gather vital information that employers cannot, including the use of medications that may impair coordination and affect judgment. Combined with the knowledge of the job, these factors will minimize hiring an injury waiting to happen and improve the efficiency of the workforce. Failure to take these steps sends a silent message to other workers that the company doesn't care whom they hire, even if it impairs job safety. And in the workplace, a silent message can sound like the space shuttle blasting off at Cape Kennedy.

Hiring a workers' compensation injury is the first in a series of ugly and very expensive steps towards skyrocketing costs. Injuries adversely affect the experience modification rating, which compares the company's actual losses with other employers of similar size and type operations in the state. Many companies in the construction industry face the added risk of losing the opportunity to bid on projects at the federal, state and municipal level, if the experience modification goes above 1.00.

Still changing the safety culture of a company is no easy feat, especially within the construction industry. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most common construction site injuries suffered by workers include:

  1. Burns and scarring
  2. Head injuries
  3. Injuries to the spinal cord
  4. Cuts and lacerations
  5. Broken, fractured, or crushed bones
  6. Limb or digit loss
  7. Loss of hearing
  8. Stress injuries
  9. Heat stroke
  10. Vision loss

So, as we see, the challenge to control injuries on a job site is daunting but not impossible. It all starts with creating a culture of zero tolerance for injuries, which begins at the moment an applicant walks through the door.

For the first time in two decades there are changes coming down the road like an out-of-control tractor-trailer. Many business owners find themselves straddling the white line when it hits. NCCI (The national rating bureau for workers' compensation) increased the "split point" calculation from $5,000 to $10,000 in 2013. In 2014 it increased to $13,500 and jumps to $15,000 by 2015. A workers' compensation injury that is paid up to the "split point" is known as a "primary loss" and reflects the frequency of such claims. The amount of money the insurance company pays after the "split point" is "excess loss" and reflects severity.

Ultimately, how the split point and the experience modification rating interact will be a more accurate picture of a company's history. This magnifies the importance of a robust safety culture.

According to OSHA, strong safety cultures have the single greatest impact on accident reduction of any process, and should be a top priority for all managers and supervisors. OSHA also contends that in a strong safety culture, everyone feels responsible for safety and pursues it on a daily basis; employees go beyond "the call of duty" to identify unsafe conditions and behaviors, and intervene to correct them. For instance, in a strong safety culture any worker would feel comfortable walking up to the plant manager or CEO and reminding him or her to wear safety glasses. This type of behavior would not be viewed as forward or over-zealous but would be valued by the organization and rewarded. Likewise coworkers routinely look out for one another and point out unsafe behaviors to each other. A company with a strong safety culture typically experiences few at-risk behaviors; therefore, they also experience low accident rates, low turnover, low absenteeism, and high productivity. They are usually companies that are extremely successful by excelling in all aspects of business and excellence.

It all sounds good on paper. But ultimately, in an industry where people daily interact with wet floors, sharp objects, falling debris and extremely heavy objects that need to be consistently moved from Point A to Point B, injuries can happen. But when this occurs procedures must be in place to get the injured worker back on the job as quickly as possible, not only for morale purposes, but because an injured worker impacts that all-important experience modification rating for three years.

If an injured worker returns to work in a timely manner, before the insurance company is required to pay them workers' compensation or lost-time wages, in many states the injury is reduced by as much as 70% in an employer's Experience Modification calculation. This demonstrates the value of an effective return-to-work program that includes a relationship with an occupational medicine doctor who can properly evaluate the injury and make suggestions as to appropriate transitional work.

Keeping the lines of communication open between the injured employee and the employer is key. There is nothing worse than the employee sitting home all day, wondering why the employer hasn't called. Worst of all, this injured employee is being entertained by a relentless stream of daytime TV commercials from lawyers telling them "they deserve what's coming to them." What they "deserve" is to get back on the job as soon as possible and once again be a productive asset in the workplace. Then everyone benefits. Return-to-work options can include:

To ensure an effective safety program, the management team must lead the commitment, develop techniques to build employee engagement so they are onboard, and have procedures firmly in place to help prevent injuries before they occur. And that starts with implementing a zero injury culture, a "We Care" attitude from management to make sure every employee returns home safely at the end of the day. The phrase "accidents happen" should no longer be part of the workplace language.

- adopted from an article by James Morgan, Certified WorkComp Advisor and Master WorkComp Advisor with The Clement Companies, a Towne Insurance Agency, located in Cary, NC