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The human factor: preventing the damage caused by your people and their practices

By Lyndsey Neller-Harper

Each year, thousands of people are killed at work. For the second consecutive year, workplace deaths surpassed the 5,000 mark. So, I ask you, as a business owner, what could you have done to prevent those deaths?

Many business owners believe the answer is simple: supply the proper equipment and make sure it is maintained; that is the only thing that is vital to their success. Others argue in favor of having safety protocols in place, as well as written guidelines and on-site training. Each answer is correct. The most successful business owners don't choose one or the other, they do both.

It is important to instill a safety culture starting at the hiring process, but it is equally important to focus time and energy into injury management. Taking care of safety means accepting responsibility for workers at every level; it means identifying hazards, training for effectiveness, equipping workers properly, and ensuring that they will be taken care of in an emergency. It is accounting for the "human factor" and realizing that workers will not always follow procedures. It is changing the safety culture and managing how employees react to an injury in the workplace.

Each of these steps reduces the impact an injury will have on the future of a business and the lives of its people.

Step 1: Safety starts at hire. Educate new employees about business processes during onboarding. Create an employee handbook that is discussed with each new member of the staff. Begin requiring a post-hire physical; this is a test that can be mandated AFTER a formal job offer has been made. A doctor tests strength, flexibility, and stamina, and can determine whether the tasks required of the job can be performed safely. Necessitating a post offer employment test protects you from the grief of hiring an unfit employee, who is far more likely to "re-injure" himself at work.

Step 2: Make safety and health a top priority. Build a safety committee and tell your employees that "making sure they finish the day and go home safely is the way you do business." Involve your staff in the implementation of safety procedures and training schedules, giving them ownership in your business and its practices. Danny Meyer, a successful restaurateur in New York with a net worth of over $350 million, distinguishes his company from others by prioritizing his employees and giving them a stake in his company. He said in an interview, "Companies that are seeing the most success in their culture change initiatives are (...) involving employees in the change at every step, rather than forcing it on them from above."

Your safety committee might consist of four non-management employees, four management employees and your agent. Creating alternate job duties for the Recovery-at-Work program, reviewing health and safety policies, and unifying the needs of employees and management to promote safety in the workplace are the goals of the committee.

Ignorant workers are possibly the biggest danger. It is imperative to understand the risks involved in the job and build awareness of those risks. You must give tenured employees an outlet to instill a culture they have already bought into, and to provide a forum to discuss safety and security practices. This is vital if you want your people to accept a safety centered culture.

Step 3: Develop a system for injury management and make sure that each member of your staff is fully versed in it. Proper injury management can help employers avoid costs resulting from lost time due to work stoppages, insurance payouts, and an elevated experience mod. Proper injury management also saves the injured employee the pain and suffering that would ensue without quick and effective treatment.

Personalize your Panel of Physicians to ensure the goal of each doctor is to bring people back to work. Verify that every staff member knows what the Panel of Physicians is and where it is posted.

Create an employee action plan so there are no questions about what to do, who to call or where to go when someone is hurt at work. Promote a member of your staff to "Recovery at Work Supervisor." Doing so will guarantee that the same person is notified each time an injury occurs and thus allows the claim to be reported in a timely manner.

In speaking with a spokesman for a large telecommunications company, I was able to see how these steps saved them around $150,000 when their mod dropped from 1.4 to under 1.0. After promoting a tenured employee to Recovery at Work Supervisor and to head the safety committee, they noticed the number of accidents fell dramatically and time lost from injury nearly disappeared. Their onboarding process was improved and on two occasions the post-offer physical saved them from hiring employees with serious back injuries into a job requiring heavy lifting.

The easiest way to achieve your workers' comp goal is to reduce injuries through safety, eliminate reporting delays, lessen treatment postponements, shorten the time your employees are out of work, and make sure only workers' comp trained medical providers treat your injured workers.

Taking these steps allows you to reach your lowest possible experience mod. Once that happens, you can stop throwing thousands of dollars away on your workers' comp insurance each year.

Lyndsey Neller-Harper is a Master Worker Comp Advisor for Snider-Killingsworth Insurance, Griffin, GA.