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Curbing workers' comp costs

Nov 1, 1996 12:00 AM

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Both small and large firms can curtail employee injuries in their companies

Did the check you just wrote to the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) leave you frustrated - not only because injuries continue to occur at your shop, but also because these payments eat up hundreds of thousands of dollars in company profits?

WCB costs continue to skyrocket. The average cost of a claim has more than tripled since the mid-1980s. Along with added costs are added ways to get injured, brought on by new technologies.

Several independent studies show unionized workplaces are much more compliant with health and safety legislation than are non-union firms. Also, smaller workplaces have higher accident rates than do larger ones.

If the number of injuries don't decrease, the industry can expect further safety legislation in an attempt to reduce on-the-job injuries. However, large and small companies can head off this situation.

Start by pulling out accident records for the past two or three years. Studying them in total versus examining each as it occurs can be enlightening. Pinpoint causes and look for repetition in both type of injuries and the departments in which they occurred.

Continue by analyzing the workplace, and involve not only the firm's health and safety committee, but workers as well. Equipment hazards are the easiest ones to pinpoint and, therefore, most companies are on top of any such difficulties. Environmental hazards include chemicals, noise, temperature and ventilation.

Job task or ergonomic hazards also exist. You can seek advice from ergonomic experts, but solicit employee input first; to encourage workers to buy into safety, everyone must be involved in safety analysis. When workers give input, make sure that discussions and actions are written in health and safety committee minutes and posted.

At Printco in Michigan, training safety coordinator Lowell Otter reports that after performing safety analysis, "we are replacing the steel shafts for splicer equipment with carbon fiber shafts, meaning roll tenders will lift 43 lbs. versus 73 lbs. We've ordered 14 of the carbon shafts. They aren't cheap, but just one back injury can cost $25,000."

Steve Scheunemann, training coordinator at Scoville Press in Minnesota, says the firm made many ergonomic changes that reduced carpal tunnel incidents. These alterations include a scissor lift for cutters and automatic strapping for sorters. "We also instituted a rotation system for people performing frequent wrist actions and lifting that allows rest for the body part doing the repetitive motion. (Added bonuses are varying job responsibilities and cross-trained workers who can help with bottlenecks.)

"In the bindery, we implemented an exercise program designed by an outside provider who came in and studied our work process," he continues. "A buzzer reminds workers to stop three times a day and do wrist, neck and shoulder rolls. We instituted exercise breaks in prepress and for computer users in the office."

Recently, Scoville worked with an instructor who designed a course on stress, and training results were positive. Overall, during the past three years, Scheunemann says, "we dropped our premiums a substantial amount on claims. From 1993 to 1994, payments were cut by $130,000; from 1994 to August 1995 they already were down an added $140,000."

Neither of these companies is an isolated example. At Weldon, Williams & Licks in Arkansas, assistant safety director Bill Carney reports, "we studied our 1994 accident report. There were 58 accidents, of which 24 were strains and sprains. These 24 accounted for 404 of the total 476 hours of lost time."

To curb these incidents, the company raised awareness by distributing a book, Staying on the Safe Side. The firm then delivered extensive training on how to lift properly and the importance of early detection of carpal tunnel (and explained that employees who identify it aren't complaining). In addition, supervisors were given a pamphlet about accident investigation. Members of the health and safety committee, instead of remaining on the committee for years, now are rotated every six months.

During their six months on the committee, they receive thorough training, including how to perform inspections, and study ergonomics, especially back safety. This instruction allows them to do an effective job and see not-so-obvious safety hazards. The company now ranks below the national average for injuries in the printing industry.

Production managers and supervisors have been trained to get customers' jobs out the door, so preventive safety activities often are at the bottom of their to-do lists. Their mind-set is that products out the door equal profit, and WCB payments are just a cost of doing business. However, those costs are draining the profit they work so hard to create - profits that could be used to buy needed new equipment.

Just as these professionals are accountable for reproduction, they also must become accountable for safety. One proven way to do so is to assign them to monthly department meetings that include safety presentations. Employees also can be involved in these presentations, which needn't be more than 15 minutes (e.g., a demonstration on how to lift correctly or a discussion on an article from a safety magazine).

Another method to make management accountable can occur in companies in which internal medical costs and WCB payments are paid out of a central budget. Many firms now charge these costs back against the budget of the department in which the accident occurred. Managers must budget for WCB payments and rehabilitation costs as a separate line item, which raises visibility and importance.

At Weldon, Williams and Licks, on the first Wednesday of each month four workers on the health and safety committee volunteer to study accidents from the month before and devise questions for supervisors of the departments in which the accidents occurred. The next month, these supervisors report to the committee with answers, as well as explain what actions have been taken to prevent the accident from recurring.

Another successful way to involve company management is through recognition and incentive programs that can motivate workers to make safety a habit by appealing to their sense of pride. Workers also must be involved with management in the program's design, implementation and measurement.

Printco set a goal of attaining 75 accident-free days. This aim was attained and the company treated everyone to pizza. The firm set the next goal at 125 days. It, too, was attained, and Printco held a barbecuet. The next goal was 180 days, with T-shirts for everyone when it was met.

Other motivational reward programs? Scheunemann of Scoville Press helped arrange an Employee Appreciation Day at a local school, using the auditorium and 15 classrooms. A chiropractor, dentist, eye doctor and health club set up displays. In addition, experts provided blood testing, fat counts, exercise machines, nutritious food, information on the importance of sun block, as well as other information.

Employee involvement is just as important as management participation. Otter of Printco, for one, instituted a safety suggestion contest. For one month, workers submitted ideas using the available forms and suggestion boxes. On the form, along with their names, employees listed the current practice or situation that caused concern, described how to change it, and explained desired results.

A worker's first suggestion earned a coffee mug, flashlight or safety hat decorated with safety slogans. Further suggestions were put in a box for a drawing and winners received jackets and sweatshirts. All suggestions were typed, posted and regularly updated with the progress made on each. Management also followed up with workers to find out if the results were what they wanted.

Another method to reduce WCB payments is education. For instance, Scoville Press changed its new employee orientation. It now includes one hour on OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations, including a film and quiz. In addition, it covers back safety and personal protective equipment (fit, care and replacement). This training allows new employees to work safely from Day One.

Returning injured employees to work as soon as feasible also can help. Management may believe that if the workers can't perform 100 percent of the job, they shouldn't be at work; and that it takes extra time to manage these people. Management must realize workers don't have to be 100 percent on the job, but can tackle modified duties suited to their current abilities.

Having management accountable, as mentioned previously, and charging back to its budget helps here, making follow-up part of managers' jobs. When workers are on modified work programs and on loan to departments other than their own, their salaries still are charged to their own department's budget.

Management also must be involved in establishing company back-to-work guidelines. Asking supervisors to prepare modified jobs ahead of time is important since it avoids last-minute panic to find work.

Most employees want to return to work. They may be bored and anxious or under financial stress due to reduced salaries. They miss interacting with their coworkers and often experience low self-esteem (they may feel inept for having had the accident). They also may believe the supervisor and/or company is upset with them for getting hurt or spoiling a safety record.

Supervisors should contact workers immediately after accidents to confirm they are concerned and that the employees are missed. If workers remain at home for months, their attitudes change toward work and themselves.

Doctors may experience barriers in returning workers to their jobs because they may lack the training to handle ergonomic injuries, which must be treated with a sports medicine philosophy. They often must rely on patient information versus medical tests, and so may have difficulty pinpointing specific job restrictions.

To help, one company supplies a doctor with a job description and video of other workers performing the same job as the injured employee.

Other firms invite local doctors for tours so they can make more informed decisions. Carney's firm works with two clinics and discusses modified programs. Carney has developed questions such as, "What's the maximum load workers can lift? Do they have to stand or sit to perform tasks?"

Safety costs are manageable and savings can provide the money for new equipment, training and other items so necessary to achieve success in today's fast-paced graphic arts industry.


Take steps to reduce workers compensation by following these suggestions for fewer injuries

1 Pull accidents reports to find patterns 2 Analyze the workplace: identify equipment and ergonomics 3 Raise safety awareness 4 Create accountability in department budgets 5 Involve employees in safety planning 6 Education 7 Reward participation and results 8 Return employees to work as soon as possible

Nancy Lowther, President of Lowther Training and Development, a Toronto-based consulting firm specializing in printing industry training program development