Lynch Ryan's weblog about workers' compensation, risk management, business insurance, workplace health & safety, occupational medicine, injured workers, insurance webtools & technology and related topics

March 31, 2005

And The Green Cross for Safety Medallion goes to...

Congratulations to Liberty Mutual for winning the National Safety Council's highest award, The Green Cross for Safety Medallion. It will be presented to CEO Ted Kelly tonight at a dinner in Chicago.

Liberty Mutual has long been in safety's vanguard. In the middle 1970s, when I was still a young man directing the Army's Safety and Health program in New England, I have fond memories of my many visits to the company's Research Center in Hopkinton, MA, to listen to Dr. Stover Snook expound on his cutting-edge ergonomic research (a brilliant scientist, Stover would stop me cold as he casually discussed the misadventures surrounding the frequent disappearances of his pet python at home) and to watch Gil Drake and his staff teach emergency driving maneuvers to the teenage sons and daughters of Liberty's policyholders.

Gil, a very lucky man who had the good fortune to marry a wonderful woman who also happened to be the former Miss Venezuela, was the best driving instructor I ever met. Nearly all of the techinques taught today by the instructors at the Research Center, including Liberty's Decision Driving concept, were invented by him. A man dedicated to saving lives on the road, he was also a good friend. It is very gratifying to see that Gil's message and that of his peers still resonates at the company he gave so much of his life to. Ted Kelly can be very proud tonight. The National Safety Council chose wisely.

Posted by Tom Lynch at 4:10 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post

Extreme Commuting: Not Exactly the Sporting Life

There is a relatively new phenomenon for a growing number of working Americans: extreme commuting. According to Business Week, 3.4 million Americans have a commute to work that takes 90 minutes or longer each way. Fueled by outrageous inflation in housing prices, American workers find themselves “driving until they qualify” – that is, driving out from their jobs until they reach a community where they can afford a house. The Blue Ridge Mountains have become a bedroom community of Washington, D.C., New Hampshire is now an exurb of Boston, and Modesto, Calif. is an outpost of Silicon Valley. (If you are interested in learning where your state ranks for extreme commuting, check out the chart in this USA Today article.)

The average commute in America is still only 25.5 minutes. In the not-too-distant past, people drew the line at 45 minutes. But economic necessity has caused that number to double, with no end in sight. When you combine tremendous commuting distances with the inevitable congestion as you near centers for employment, you have a recipe for serious anguish.

The Business Week article tells the story of a Whirlpool employee who crosses a time zone to get to his job. Waking at 3 a.m., the employee drives 105 miles from Chicago's West Side to company headquarters in Benton Harbor, Mich. During the drive he conducts business on his cell phone. He started the job with a brand new Range Rover, racking up 62,000 miles in the first year. Now he drives an $84,000 Mercedes sedan. My question for the employee, and his deep-pocketed employer, is whether his prolific cell phone use puts this employee at higher risk for an accident – and if so, is the employer comfortable with this open-ended liability? (See our blogs on the risks of cell phones while driving…)

Commuting Stress and Workers Comp
So are all these stressed out commuters ripe for workers compensation claims? Under most state laws, they are not. Comp does not ordinarily cover the “to and fro” of commuting. Coverage generally begins when you get to your workplace and ends when you leave it. Indeed, the state of Missouri recently changed its “to and fro” rule to eliminate coverage for drivers in company cars, closing the loop on an unusual and ill-advised definition of working.

Indeed, not only are most extreme commuters not covered by comp, the stress of their (non work-related) commute is so great, they are unlikely to qualify for any comp stress claim – because they will be unable to prove that work comprises at least half of the stress in their harried lives! The stress of their commute is likely to dwarf any stress that occurs in the workplace.

Some employees may be covered by workers comp during the commute. If people routinely take work home, using their homes as an office, in some states the definition of the workday may expand to incorporate their commute. For these workers, and for on-call workers, coverage may be door to door. Nevertheless, even if they are “working while commuting,” they will face a very high standard to establish that any serious stress problems are work related.

For those of us fortunate enough to face a modest and possibly even pleasant commute each morning, let’s take a moment to sympathize with our fellow workers who face the challenges of extreme commuting. It’s no sport and it’s no fun. Here’s wishing that their next job involves a five minute walk up the street.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:17 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post

"What are my rights?" Employer frustration with workers comp

A reader asks: Is there a guide for employers' rights? Who makes the final decision to award a disability retirement? Who checks to insure that there is no fraud being committed?

The short answer to these questions is "prevailing state law." All jurisdictions have variations in the laws that govern the rights and responsibilities of both the employer and employee. Each state insurance authority also has a mechanism for reporting suspected fraud. While your workers comp insurer might investigate a claim and accept or deny it based on the circumstances of the claim, their interpretations are subject to review by state workers comp boards and authorities if challenged by the employee. You can find a link to your state workers comp authority on the All 50 States' and D.C.'s Home Pages and Workers' Compensation Agencies site. Or the Department of Labor offers a an overview of State Workers Comp Laws that allows you to compare provisions and benefits state by state.

There is a longer answer to this question too, perhaps too long for us to address fully in one fell swoop, but we'll try. Behind these questions, we pick up a familiar air of frustration. Many employers - particularly small employers - are pretty much in the dark about workers comp until something wakes them up and makes them take notice. That "something" is usually an adverse event: premium rates that suddenly skyrocket, being thrown into the state's assigned risk (or "insurer of last resort") pool, or an award of benefits to an employee in a situation the employer perceives as fraudulent or unfair. Many employers we've talked to feel mugged by workers comp - they feel like unwitting victims of a system run amuck.

To those employers, we would have a few words of advice: take charge. If you rely on your insurer or some outside party to manage your workers comp experience, you are likely to be frustrated on more than one occasion. Think of your insurer as essentially a financier who finances the risk. A good insurer might provide services to help you prevent, mitigate, or control losses, but essentially their raison d'etre is about money, not the people issues.

Taking control of your experience
At its very essence, workers compensation is not really an insurance problem or a money issue ... it's a people issue, a "human" issue. It's about your employees and your relationship to your employees. It's about people who get hurt on the job and how you take care of them. When it comes to your work force and your relations with your work force, the real person in the driver's seat is you.

There may not be a lot you can do about a past judgment, even if it seems unfair. But the worst thing you could do going forward would be to communicate your frustration to your work force in the form mistrust, suspicion, or unfair practices designed to prevent a repeat occurrence. A punitive approach will tarnish your good relations with your workers and will be unfair to the many good employees that comprise the overwhelming majority of your work force.

The best thing you could do going forward would be to educate yourself about your rights & responsibilities about the law in advance, and to develop a proactive rather than a reactive workers comp program to protect both your business and your employees. Some important components in that program include:

Prevention. We can't say this enough: the cheapest injuries - both in human and financial costs - are the ones that never occur.

Good communication. Take the mystery out of workers comp. Educate employees about their rights and responsibilities in advance.

A pre-established plan. Train your managers and supervisors in what to do if an injury occurs.

Excellent medical care. Develop a relationship with a superior and responsive physician who understands workers comp and how to treat occupational injuries.

Early reporting. Set an expectation that all injuries be reported promptly; also, have a "same-day" reporting standard for communicating any claims to your insurer.

Good, ongoing communication. Stay in frequent communication with the injured employee throughout the recovery process.

Return to work program. Build a plan to help the injured employee to return to work as soon as possible, including modified duty.

Fairness and consistency. Think of the "Golden Rule" - how would you want to be treated if you had an on-the-job injury? Be consistent and apply the same principles to all.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 9:52 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 30, 2005

Older Workers : Protection for a Growing Majority

We recently blogged the increasing reliance on older workers among some of the nation's largest retail chains. While we welcome the inclusion of older workers into the workforce, we caution employers about the potential impact on workers compensation. The older you get, the more likely it is that you have pre-existing conditions that may impact your ability to do the job safely.

I don't have exact numbers, but I would guess that in 1967, when the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was passed by Congress, older workers comprised a minority of the workforce. Today, nearly 40 years later, the 75 million workers over 40 make up about 53% of the total workforce. Protections for older workers, in other words, are now protections for the majority. (Which of course does not mean the protection is not needed!)

"Disparate Impact"
In the years since the ADEA was passed, the Supreme Court had never decided whether it authorizes cases involving unintentional discrimination, known as "disparate impact" suits. Federal appeals courts have issued contradictory rulings on the issue.

Today the Supreme Court found in Smith v. City of Jackson, Mississippi, that discrimination need not be intentional. In other words, you don't have to prove that the employer intentionally discriminated against workers above the age of 40. You only need to prove that the actions had a disproportionate impact on older workers. Nonetheless, the standard of proof remains high. Indeed, in this particular case, the Court found in favor of the employer.

Occupational Geriatrics?
As the workforce ages, and as people prolong their careers into their late 60s and 70s, we will be facing unprecedented issues for the workers compensation system. Keep in mind that the system was created when people trained for a single job, generally worked for a single employer, and retired right at 65. Today, people change jobs (and even careers) numerous times, they work for many different employers, and they might not retire until they reach their 70s. State legislatures across the country are faced with obsolete notions of work and retirement. In addition, the medical profession is about to be confronted with older and older people trying to overcome injuries and get back to active employment. Will medical schools soon offer a new specialty in occupational geriatrics?

Hiring is Always Risky
Any act of hiring, regardless of the age of the applicant, is full of risk. Indeed, hiring a stranger may be the riskiest action an employer makes. So we recommend that you make the hiring process as thorough and rigorous as possible. Don't just require a written job application: read it carefully! Talk directly to applicants, preferably in a variety of settings, using different members of your team. And check references. Even if prior employers will only verify dates of employment, push hard for full disclosure. (There is such as thing as a "negligent reference"!) If your jobs are physically demanding, explore the feasibility of pre-employment physicals. Once you hire someone, you've made a commitment with profound ramifications for your organization. There is no such thing as a "casual" hire!

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 3:36 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 29, 2005

Post Traumatic Stress: How do people heal?

In this country, when traumatic events occur, we send in the counselors. Whether it’s a school shooting, a tragic fire or violence in the workplace, counselors are routinely sent in to help survivors deal with the trauma. Is that the best way to help people heal? Is it a universally accepted response?

After a recent conference in Rome called "Project One Billion," New York Times essayist Dr. Sally Satel raises some interesting doubts about the efficacy of counseling (registration required to read the article). The article is entitled "Bread and Shelter, Yes. Psychiatrists, No" -- a compelling title, given that Satel herself is a psychiatrist. The Conference was organized by Dr. Richard Mollica, a psychiatrist at Harvard, under the auspices of the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and humanitarian nonprofit organizations.

A Billion Sufferers?
"One billion" signifies the number of people worldwide, roughly one in six, suffering the psychological consequences of war, torture and terrorism. (Unless you include the trauma of abject poverty, I think – or at least I hope – that “one billion” may be an overstatement.) The conference addressed the fundamental issue of how to provide help: can therapy and counseling speed the healing process for the survivors of significant trauma?

Dr. Satel states that for the last 15 years or so, humanitarian workers have been exporting the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma counseling around the globe. They have rushed in to impose a Western-style "debriefing" - a group therapy technique intended to get victims to express their feelings about a horrific event and to relive it as vividly as they can - without regard to the needs of the victims, their natural healing systems or their very conception of what mental illness might be.

This particular conference appears to have concluded that the use of this type of debriefing is not what is really needed by people who have suffered from trauma. Instead, Dr. Mollica urges that Western mental health workers collaborate with indigenous healers. The W.H.O. now instructs aid workers to "listen, convey compassion, assure basic physical needs, not force talking, and provide or mobilize company preferably from family or significant others." That sounds like good advice in any post-traumatic stress situation, no matter what the circumstances.

Keep it Practical
Kenneth Miller, a psychologist in the Chicago area’s Bosnian Mental Health Program, saw much suffering among his clients - they had been placed in concentration camps before migrating to the United States - yet they did not really want to talk about the terrible things that had happened. The most successful feature of his program involved practical help such as education and job training. These people wanted to move on, not linger on their terrible recent past.


If you examine any traumatic situation, you will find a variety of responses among the victims. Some will want to talk, others will want to move on with their lives as quickly as possible. There is no “one size fits all” remedy. I imagine that the most important quality for any responders – any people who come face to face with victims in the immediate aftermath – is the ability to listen carefully. It is not helpful -- it can indeed be most harmful -- to impose on those who suffer our own belief systems and our own narrow views of the healing process.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:28 AM Link to, Comment (1), or E-mail this post
March 28, 2005

Weblog roundup: business reads, prescription drugs, functional capacity, & more

Sometimes it�s good to look at the forest, and other times it�s good to look at the trees. To get a take on macro economic and business trends that affect the day-to-day work place, check out Library Journal's recommendations for Best Business Books of 2004 .

Managed Care Matters reports that the Second Annual Survey of Prescription Drug Management in Workers' Compensation has been completed. Prescription drug costs are seen as an increasingly significant cost component in benefit payouts. Joe also has a good post on managed care and physician choice.

Dedicated safety activist and blogger Jordan Barab is on vacation, but in his absence, Tammy and Kelly bring us the Weekly Toll and an update on the BP explosion.

George's Employment Blawg has an excellent post on functional capacity and similar testing, information that can be helpful in building ADA-compliant job descriptions as well as in identifying appropriate temporary return-to-work assignments.

Strategic HR Lawyer notes that staffing company employment is up in 2004. Nearly 12 million temps and contract workers were engaged, an increase of about one million over the prior year.

Thanks to Inter Alia for pointing us to 10 Things To Know About Evaluating Medical Resources on the Web - useful advice that should actually apply to evaluating the credibility of most online sites.

Posted by LynchRyan at 7:39 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 25, 2005

Never Again�Until Next Time

How often does tragedy strike and we vow never to let it happen again? This is the 94th anniversary of the horrendous Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire, in which 146 workers died because of blocked exits. (We blogged the event and a recent book about it back in February). Although the fire eventually led to reforms in workplace safety, the immediate result was the acquittal of the owners in a criminal negligence trial, due in large part to a brilliant lawyer named Max Stueur. It’s a good thing that slick lawyers don’t have that kind of influence anymore, isn’t it?

The coverage of last week’s B.P. oil refinery fire in Texas City has been relatively mute. After all, only 15 people died and most of them were contract workers. It will be interesting to see if their families collect any workers compensation death benefits. The real problem, wouldn’t you know, is that it might lead to higher prices at the pump.

Through his website Confined Space, Jordan Barab keeps reminding us that workplace safety is by no means a done deal. He points out that BP is a national leader in accidents: BP’s U.S. facilities have had more than 3,565 accidents since 1990, ranking first in the nation. With last week’s 15 fatalities, they might be #1 in deaths as well. Is a “We’re #1!” PR campaign in the works?

News reports have pointed to an aging infrastructure in our oil refineries and to increased reliance on poorly trained contract workers. But after last week’s wake up call, I am sure that the management of our oil companies (whose stocks go up with the price of gasoline) will take aggressive steps to make sure it never happens again. And it won’t… until the next time.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:04 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 24, 2005

What is Disability Management?

At the heart of workers compensation is – or should be – the concerted effort to treat workplace injury and illness and get people back to productive employment. Sounds reasonable, but how do you do it? What exactly is “disability management?”

Our esteemed colleague, Dr. Jennifer Christian, host of the informative WebilityMD website, takes a shot at defining disability management, in response to a simple question from someone new to the field. Just click on her link for the February Q & A. We think her casual outline deserves wider notice.

Comp Benefits
Dr. Christian’s list begins with the effort to control indemnity losses. Over the past two decades, this effort has centered in state legislatures across the country. Once workers comp came onto the national radar screen, legislatures tried a variety of strategies to lower costs. These ranged from the highly successful Qualified Loss Management Program (QLMP) in Massachusetts, to Governor Schwarzenegger’s recent efforts in California (where a 10% rate reduction is finally in the offing). In the ongoing effort to cut costs, it’s always tempting to cut benefits, which many states have done. (We happen to believe that you control the costs of comp without cutting benefits -- but that is fodder for another blog.)

Workers Comp and Medical Care
Dr. Christian looks at three areas related to medical care, not surprisingly, as she is Board Certified in occupational medicine. First, she thinks that vocational rehabilitation programs represent a missed opportunity in many instances. We agree. The problem may be in the current disconnect between the employer where the injury occurred and future employment. There should be a better way to tie voc rehab to real employment opportunities.

Dr. Christian next examines the need to speed up medical care, specifically, through the prudent use of nurse case managers. While recognizing the utility of nurse case management, she believes strongly that these services require more than just a conventional nursing background. The key is developing a strategy for every open claim – a strategy that maximizes the return-to-work probabilities.

In addition, Dr. Christian takes a very interesting look at her own profession. I especially enjoyed her laundry list of the ways doctors can be the problem: they can be incompetent, disorganized, enabling, erratic, inattentive, neglectful, inappropriate, corrupt, greedy and unethical. She singles out the “predatory physicians” who provide serial, unnecessary services to unsuspecting and often innocent workers. (This has been a huge problem in California.) Needless to add, she has much to say about the positive role of doctors in solving the disability problem.

“Delayed Recovery”
Finally, Dr. Christian focuses on what may be the single greatest cost driver in the entire workers compensation system: we often use the word “malingering,” – injured workers staying out of work longer than is medically necessary -- but Dr. Christian has coined a more neutral and more compelling terminology: “delayed recovery.” Under delayed recovery, even though there is no medically necessary reason for people to be out of work, they do not return to work. These delays may stem from actions (or inactions) of the employee, the doctor, the employer or even the insurance carrier. And as injured workers drift on their own through the medical maze, they begin to lose their identity as workers. They often succomb to a “disability syndrome” and begin to believe that they are never going to be able to work again. Dr. Christian sees the need for a multi-disciplinary assessment, one that looks at more than just an injured body part. Through such an assessment, we can identify the people most at risk for delayed recovery and plan effective interventions so that the delays are minimized.

The Employer Role
Dr. Christian recognizes the importance of employer involvement, without which success in controlling losses will remain a distant goal. Educated employers know how to respond to injured workers. They secure first rate medical treatment and use temporary modified duty to accommodate medically necessary restrictions. Educated employers treat every injury with a sense of urgency, because they care about their people and because they understand the risks involved in a “delayed” recovery process.

Even though Dr. Christian’s brief paper is just the beginning of a working definition of disability management, there is plenty of food for thought for all of us. Every once in a while, we need to step back and refocus on the big picture. We need to redefine what we are trying to do in managing disabilities and the best ways for accomplishing our goals. Dr. Christian’s paper is an excellent starting point in this effort.


Posted by Jon Coppelman at 1:19 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 23, 2005

Older Workers Wanted: The Good News and the Bad

A feature article by Milt Freudenheim in the New York Times (registration required) touts new recruiting efforts by a number of nationally prominent companies to find older workers. In settings as varied as Borders bookstores, Home Depots, Pitney Bowes and Walmart, a serious effort is being made to lure people out of retirement by offering health benefits, flexible hours and computer training. Home Depot even offers a “snowbird special” – winter employment in a Florida store, summer employment back up north. This workforce expansion is a very promising development, tapping a traditionally underused resource.

Employers cited in the article praise the reliability of older workers. There is less turnover than with younger recruits. Older workers bring a host of skills to the job. Retired teachers (who love books) become a valued resource in bookstores. A retired electrical contractor can do more than point a Home Depot customer in the right direction; he can actually provide meaningful advice.

Higher Risks
Speaking as an older worker, I applaud this effort to expand the workforce. At the same time, employers need to stay focused on the age-related risks that older workers bring to the job. For a detailed discussion of these risks, there is no better source than an article originally published in the Journal of Workers Compensation and now posted by its authors at the Ohio Bureau of Workers Comp.

The Ohio study examines the recovery rates of workers, by type of injury and by age. Not surprisingly, older workers (those in the 65 to 74 year range) recover more slowly than do younger workers. For example, the article cites a Work Loss Data Institute study of disability durations for lumbar disc problems. For workers in the 45 to 54 year range, the duration has a factor of 1.10; in the 65 to 74 year range, the factor is 1.64. This is just common sense: the older you are, the longer it takes to recover from injuries.

The Ohio bureau also studied the average cost of injuries in Ohio by age. They found that for workers over age 70, the average cost was about $5,000. For workers 50 to 59 years old, the average cost drops to $3,300.

Safety Factors
To keep older workers safe, employers need to focus relentlessly on “good housekeeping.” As we age, our peripheral vision decreases and our reflexes slow down. We are at risk for slips and falls, for momentary inattention, for strains and sprains. Employers should minimize the lifting, stretching and bending required of older workers. I thought about this recently in a Home Depot store, where high shelves full of relatively heavy merchandise are common. When an older worker and I retrieved a heavy shelving unit together, I could not help but think that we were both at risk.

In today’s workplace, risk managers must anticipate potential catastrophes, including terrorist attacks and other types of workplace violence. In these unfortunate circumstances, older workers are at higher risk for injury. They may not hear warnings as well as other workers. They tend to be less mobile and flexible in response. Their cardio-vascular capacity and respitory reserves may be less than those of younger workers – to put it simply, they might not be able to run from danger as quickly.

Impact on Comp Costs
Virtually all state workers comp systems contain retirement assumptions that are now obsolete. In the old days, we assumed workers would retire at age 65. With Social Security benefits being pushed to age 68 and perhaps beyond, everyone is going to work longer -- even those not motivated to do so. When 70 year old workers get injured, the assumption will be that they intend to keep working. In other words, they will be entitled to temporary total, temporary partial and permanent benefits, just the same as those provided for younger workers.

I suspect that as we push retirement further and further into the future, there will be an impact on workers comp costs. An aging workforce is at higher risk for injury and for prolonged disability. Indeed, some older workers lacking retirement plans may well view workers comp as a virtual pension. In any event, the disability costs associated with an aging workforce will eventually work their way into the rates employers pay for their insurance.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 11:12 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 22, 2005

Obesity and Workers Compensation

A little while back we blogged the conundrum of smokers, whose habit, while not illegal, does impact their over-all health and their ability to recover from injuries (whether work related or not). Today we’ll look at obesity: another physical condition that can severely impact the recovery time of injured workers.

Obesity and Discrimination
As with smoking, obese individuals are generally not considered disabled, and thus are not explicitly protected by the 1964 Civil Rights Act or the more recent Americans with Disabilities Act. Only one state, Michigan, protects obese individuals from discrimination in employment. In all other states, it appears that employers can readily discriminate against obese people.

Advocates for the obese point out that such discrimination is common. Obese people face many obstacles in hiring, in promotion and in pay.

Slower Recovery
Writing in Risk & Insurance Magazine, our colleague Peter Rousmaniere explores some of obesity’s impact on the recovery of workers from work-related injuries. While it’s clear that obesity can have an adverse impact on the duration of disability, Rousmaniere finds that most claims adjusters fail to focus on the relationship of weight to recovery. Weight becomes a “wellness” issue that falls beyond the parameters of a specific injury. Doctors are more likely to be aware of it. For example, they might hesitate to perform knee replacement surgery on an individual whose weight might compromise the success of the operation.

Safety Hazards
Morbidly obese individuals face unanticipated safety hazards. For example, emergency exits and fire escapes may be inaccessible for a person weighing 300 plus pounds. The ability to navigate stairs under less than ideal conditions is likely to be very limited. There were a number of sad tales from the 9/11 disaster involving obese individuals unable to make it down the seemingly endless stairways of the World Trade Center Towers. In addition, it’s safe to assume that many obese people may lack the aerobic capacity required by emergency situations to beat a rapid path to safety.

Accent the Positive
We do not recommend discriminating against any class of people, whether they smoke or are obese. On the other hand, it is certainly fair for employers to promote and encourage wellness. If smokers want to quit, it’s in the employer’s best interests to help them. If obese people want help in losing weight, again, it’s in the employer’s best interests to help them.

It gets tricky – indeed reaches the level of a conundrum – when smokers are comfortable with their smoking and when obese people have no interest in changing their situation. Here, employers need to tread cautiously, but with the understanding that when smokers or obese individuals are injured on the job, their recoveries may be compromised by their situations. Disability may be prolonged. It may be more difficult to accommodate obese people on temporary modified duty. It is therefore all the more important to keep the lines of communication open and to make sure that every worker, regardless of their habits or physical condition, feels valued. If someone is good enough to hire and train, they are important enough to retain. Employers must never lose sight of this simple but compelling truth.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 1:09 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 21, 2005

No bargains to be had in shortchanging trucking safety

Most of us like bargains. We almost all feel good when we can save a few pennies here and a few dollars there at the grocery store or the mall. But when is a bargain not a bargain? Maybe when we trade the potential for saving a few cents with safety on our highways.

Recently, a new regulation proposed extending the number of hours that truckers can work each day from 14 to 16. Representative John Boozman (R-AK) sponsored the bill, which some have dubbed "the Wal-mart Amendment" because the world's largest retailer has been in the forefront of pressing for the changes. It might more aptly be called the "What were they thinking" bill. This is one of those issues that concerns the safety of both the worker and the general public. About 5,000 people, more or less, are killed in big-rig fatalities each year. Let's look at a few work driving fatality statistics from NIOSH:

  • From 1992 through 2001, roadway crashes were the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S., accounting for 13,337 civilian worker deaths (22% of all injury-related deaths).
  • Truck drivers, who are included among Transportation/Material Mover occupations, had a rate of 17.6 deaths per 100,000 FTE, a rate considerably higher than that for this occupation group as a whole.
  • Vehicles occupied by fatally injured workers were most often semi-trucks (3,780, 28%), cars (3,140, 24%), other and unspecified trucks (2,359, 18%), and pickup trucks (1,607, 12%).
  • Between 1992 and 2001, truck occupant deaths increased, as car occupant deaths decreased.
  • Crashes involving large trucks (more than 10,000 lb. gross vehicle weight rating) were 7 times as likely to be fatal to other motorists as to truck occupants. An average of 4,425 motorists involved in collisions with large trucks died each year from 1992 through 2001, compared to 681 large-truck occupants.


Long driving hours: a recipe for fatigue
The current Hours of Service were revised in 2004, extending the allowable hours for driving from 10 to 11, but limiting the maximum duty period down from 15 to 14 hours. The three non-driving hours are for breaks, meals, loading and unloading, etc. Proposed legislation would increase the hours of duty to 16 and the hours of driving to 14. Rep. Boozman seems to think this will increase driver safety.

The Asheville Daily Record frames the issue when they pose the questions "While locked onto the flank of an 18-wheeler in the narrow Pigeon River Gorge on a rainy day, have you ever wondered just how tired the driver of that spray-throwing behemoth next to you is?"

The Daily Record has been an advocate of truck and highway safety over the years. They have an excellent editorial on the topic entitled Trucker fatigue still an issue; give drivers a big say in any workday changes that will be available for a few more days before being archived. It�s worth a read. They point out that a 16-hour workday is the equivalent of two full workdays for most people, and suggest that the matter of hours be best left to federal regulators and the truckers themselves:

Settling on the best formula for truck drivers' hours is best left to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), not to retailers and the trucking industry, which have much more interest in profits than what is best for the guys behind the wheel.

The FMCSA is in the midst of revising these rules, and should be gathering testimony from the truckers themselves. Congress should stay out of this process.

Boozman withdrew the bill last week in the wake of protest, but it is likely it will resurface again since some of the largest retailers are lobbying hard for extended trucking hours.

We've previously blogged about how extended hours and fatigue on the part of workers with a public trust can become a can become a public hazard. (See When injured workers meet tired doctors). From our perspective, tired workers are a hazard to themselves and to others. Extending trucker hours will result in more accidents and more deaths. Sometime later, public outrage and lawsuits will cause the pendulum to swing the other way again. In workers' comp, it doesn't take long to learn that cutting corners usually doesn't pay - a short-term gain can be quickly outweighed by a long-term loss. There are no bargains when it comes to short-changing safety.

More resources
Work Related Roadway Crashes: Who's at Risk
Truck Drivers Should Grab the Wheel When it Comes to Sleep Management
How to share the road with truckers
Driver Fatigue Quiz

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 5:44 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 17, 2005

The Myth of the Molly Maguires

I thought it might be an interesting commemoration of my Irish heritage to do a post about work conditions that my forebears faced as they immigrated to U.S. shores after the potato famine. Many were involved in the hard labor of building out the impressive canals, dams, and public works projects of the era. But as can easily happen in web wanderings, my searches took me a bit further afield, yet turning up some documents of note, such as an article in the Irish Examiner entitled "They’re filthy, violent spongers who should be sent home - the Irish!", which paints a colorful picture of the bigotry that immigrants faced. Other interesting documents turned up too - one about the No Irish Need Apply (or "NINA") phenomena, and another disputing the claims of NINA as being largely a myth of victimization.

But the real find of my evening, and one that has kept me riveted, is the story of the Molly Maguires, a clandestine society of Irish miners who struggled against the brutal work conditions in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The story revolves around work conditions and work safety in the late 1800s, the early labor union movements, immigrant pitted against immigrant, murder, execution, and more. Depending on who tells the story, it is a tale of criminals or heroes.

For a balanced account and a fascinating read, I recommend an excellent series on the The Myth of the Molly Maguires by Seamus McGraw in the Court TV Crime Library. The series opens with a profile of Alex Campbell in his jail cell listening to the gallows being built for his execution. He was one of four sentenced to death:

"The four had been convicted of Molly Maguirism and murder, their convictions based almost exclusively on the testimony of a single Pinkerton detective, a man who decades later would be widely discredited, and secured by a prosecutor specially appointed for the task, who also happened to be the president of one of the largest railroad and coal companies in the nation at that time."

One of the precipitating events leading to the violence was the 1868 Avondale Mining Disaster, in which 179 immigrants perished when a cave-in and a fire occurred in the mine.

For an alternative viewpoint of the Molly Maguires, read an 1894 rather lurid account of events. This is part of a larger historic site sponsored by Ohio State University with great articles and resources on Coal Mining in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 11:31 PM Link to, Comment (3), or E-mail this post
March 16, 2005

Fixing Workers Comp

A news round up reveals a number of states trying to fix problems in workers compensation. Not surprisingly, two of the highest cost states are trying to take action: Texas and Alaska. In any reform effort, the fault lines in the comp system are exposed. Reform always entails an attempt to control costs. When you control costs, some one loses: it might be doctors; it might be insurers; it may well be attorneys, but it is almost always injured employees. We think that reform can make winners of everyone, but first let's have a look at the news.

In Texas, second only to California for costs, half of the employers opt out of the workers compensation system. This means they prefer the “frontier justice” of the pre-workers compensation world: injured employees sue employers for benefits. Meanwhile, Texas is looking into the establishment of managed care networks as a means of attracting doctors into the workers compensation system. That’s all well and good, but until and unless Texas creates a relentless focus on the importance of returning injured employees to their jobs, costs there will remain out of control.

In Alaska, costs have been increasing, especially in the medical area. Greg O'Claray, commissioner of the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, wants to change the law to establish rate setting for medical treatment. He would also like to see faster resolution of disputed claims. I imagine that the vast distances in Alaska create a unique set of problems for the workers compensation system.

In Missouri, (Kansas City Star, registration required) reform efforts are focusing on a number of interesting issues. They want to raise the standard for injuries that qualify for compensation from the current “substantial factor” to “prevailing factor.” In other words, work must be the predominant cause of the injury. (This reminds me of the frequently debated standards for stress claims. At one point, California required that only 10% of stress had to be work related for an employee to collect workers comp!)
In addition, the current law enables employees who are in company cars to collect comp for injuries going to and coming from work. This needs to be changed. Compensability should not hinge on a fringe benefit – in this case, operating a company vehicle.
Finally, Missouri would cut benefits anywhere from 25 to 50% if an employee’s injury stems from a failure to use company-provided safety equipment. This would be a mistake. Comp is and needs to remain “no fault.” If, on the other hand, the injury reaches the standard of “willful intent” on the part of the employee, the benefits should be terminated.
The Missouri Chamber of Commerce is happy about the reforms, which includes attempts to curtail attorney involvement and the power of administrative law judges. Given the Chamber's backing, it's safe to assume that the legislation is focused on narrowing compensibility and benefits.

Over in another part of the world, we read that the usually innovative Work Cover Authority in New South Wales, Australia, wants to set a new and rather frightening standard for workplace deaths: under proposed changes in the law, the employer is presumed to be negligent for any workplace fatality and is subject to fines of up to $1.5m and up to 5 years in jail. While I am all for holding employers accountable, a presumption of guilt – if that in fact is what this is – creates a very punitive standard which might have a chilling effect on hiring. There must be a better way to establish employer accountability. (It’s worth noting that the criminal standard for employer accountability may well be reached in Rhode Island’s Station Nightclub fire, where 100 people died.)

The LynchRyan Perspective on Reform
Workers compensation legislation is a process. It tends to follow the swing of a pendulum. Over the past decade, the pendulum has swung pretty much in the employer’s favor, with the goal of reducing the overall costs of the program. In states where costs are still out of control, legislative tinkering usually focuses on cutting benefits and tightening controls. At LynchRyan, we counsel states to keep their eyes on the fundamental goal: provide incentives for employers to establish safe workplaces and return injured employees to productive employment as soon as possible. We discourage states from cutting benefits, because that is not usually where the true problems lie. Costs run out of control not because too many benefits are paid to injured workers, but because the entire system is too slow in returning these injured workers to productive employment.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 1:18 PM Link to, Comment (3), or E-mail this post
March 15, 2005

Tsunamis: Who's at Risk?

We don't often refer readers to a single site, but today we make an exception for an extraordinary explication of Tsunamis to be found at Guy Carpenter, a risk and insurance subsidiary of March & McLennan Companies. In this elegant and comprehensive document, we learn the science of tsunamis -- where and how they originate and the magnitude of their destructive powers. We learn not only about what happened recently, but of the risks for similar incidents that exist all across the globe.

Last year's disaster was triggered by the 4th largest earthquake since 1900. There have been incidents of even greater scale, but the impact was mitigated by smaller water-side populations. These days it seems that everyone wants to be near the water. A volcanic eruption on the Greek Island of Santorini in 1638 B.C.triggered a tsunami 165 feet high, which was felt across the Mediterranean (the more recent incident in the Indian Ocean topped out at a mere 50 feet). During the First World War, a French munitions ship, the SS Mont Blanc, collided with another vessel and exploded, sending a 60 foot high wall of water into Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing over 2,000 people.

Avoiding Tsunamis
If you are trying to gauge your personal risk in this terrifying area, the risk analysts at Guy Carpenter suggest that the Indian Ocean is most likely to suffer a tsunami, with the Pacific Ocean (and our own west coast) at higher risk than the Atlantic coast. But east-coast dwellers have no reason to sleep smugly in their ocean-view beds. If the Cumbra Vieja volcano on the island of Palma were to erupt (and it will within a hundred years or so), it is likely to trigger a huge landslide that may in turn produce a tsunami that would bring 33 to 82 foot waves against the Atlantic coastline. Those dwelling on the coast can do their own math.

We offer these thoughts not to depress, but to enlighten. Let's remember that for all our actuarial expertise, for all our sophisticated risk evaluation, we live on a volatile planet.


(Kudos to the authors, Julian Alovisi, Nick Hassam, David Logan and Angus Milligan. And thanks to our colleague Peter Rousmaniere for pointing the way to this fascinating document.)

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 3:56 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 14, 2005

Where There's Smoke, You're Fired

On a bitter cold day in the dead of winter a few years back, I drove into the underground parking garage of a major insurance company. There were dozens of people huddled outside the elevators. I first assumed that there was a fire drill and the building had been evacuated. On second look, I discovered that these were employees who wanted to smoke. They were "outside" -- albeit, underground. I think it was simply too cold to smoke at the street level. I wondered whether the exposure to bitter cold would compound the health risks of these people, who had been banished from the indoor space to indulge their habits.

Smoking is frequently in the news. Weyco, a Michigan-based health care benefits company, announced recently that it would terminate any employees who persisted in smoking, on or off the job. The company pointed to the higher cost of health care for smokers -- which they estimate at $4,000 per employee -- and to the fact that they are in the health business, coordinating cost-effective health care for employers. It is interesting to note that they have one employee in Illinois, which prohibits discrimination against smokers. If this employee chooses to smoke, there is nothing Weyco can do about it. I can almost see the smirk when he or she lights up!

There are currently 29 states that prohibit discrimination against smokers (listed here). That means there are 23 that allow employers to refuse to hire and retain people who smoke. Unlike the use of illegal drugs, smoking is not an illegal activity per se. You just cannot do it in many places. Some of the pro-smoker websites point out that even where smoking is illegal (bars, for example), some judges have ruled that the bar owner has no obligation to enforce the statute.

Workplace fairness, a pro-smoker website, points out the downside of this type of discrimination. Across-the-board policies result in the termination of skilled employees, whose services are valued, even if they are at higher risk for prolonged illness and even if the cost of their healthcare is higher than other employees. They raise caution flags about the loss of privacy in our culture: not only is smoking prohibited on the job, you can be fired for lighting up at home. And they wonder what's next: if smoking is a cause for termination, what other "unprotected" activities will follow?

The struggle between smoker rights and non-smoker rights is one of the great cultural divides, playing out in workplaces and in public settings across the country. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years. There was a flurry of legislative activity in the early 1990s to enact smoker-protection laws. It's probably safe to assume that list of 29 states with protections for smokers will not change much. Like so many other issues, this one will head into the courtrooms, where conflicting rights will play out in front of a judge -- who may or may not slip out the back of the courthouse for quick puff.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 12:27 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 11, 2005

Follow up: Haste and Waste in Airport Security

Yesterday's blog on the extraordinarily high injury rates for airport baggage screeners came at an interesting time for me. I had just spent 7 hours waiting for a plane in the Philadelphia airport, for a 40 minute flight to Harrisburg that could have been (and next time will be) driven in two hours. The rule of travel these days seems to be "hurry up and wait." For baggage screeners, it is "hurry up and get hurt."

The massive hiring of 45,000 security people in the Transportation Security Administration is a classic case study in "not-exactly the best" management practices. Indeed, LynchRyan cautions employers that the "good times" of expansion come with a very high risk for injuries and losses, simply due to the fact that you have to hire so many strangers. Safe hiring, under the best of circumstances, is a huge management challenge. When you combine a new occupation with difficult working conditions and ambiguous job descriptions, you have a recipe for serious trouble.

Here are just a few of the mishandled items (no pun intended) in the ramp up of airport baggage screeners:
First, set yourself unrealistic deadlines for getting up and running. This results in a mad scramble to find live bodies. When you hire 45,000 people in a short period of time, you are going to make a lot of mistakes.
Then, develop your job description as you go. In this case, it turns out that the job involves a lot more heavy lifting than originally contemplated. On a busy shift, baggage screeners might lift a bag every 7 seconds, with bags routinely weighing over 50 pounds. Handlers usually have no way of knowing how much a bag weighs, so they are often injured by misjudging the weight. The original hiring did not look for exceptional physical fitness -- and if it had, qualified candidates might have been hard to come by.
Next, set up a production system where the ergonomic stresses are maximized. In this case, there is a lot of awkward lifting from conveyer belt (low to the ground) to X-ray machine (waist high), then back to conveyer belt. Again, the under-estimated weight of the luggage became a big factor in subsequent injuries.
After that, when you have a rash of injuries, wait for OSHA to come in and tell you what you are doing wrong. Under no circumstances should you listen carefully to employee concerns and address them in a timely manner.
Finally, add in ferocious time pressures: the baggage must get on the planes, so create a frantic pace for the work, thereby maximizing the opportunity for injury. If safety stops in the x-ray machines slow you down, simply by-pass them, even if doing so creates additional hazards for workers.

A Better Way
A massive undertaking of this nature has unavoidable risks. But if the goal is to ensure the security of the traveling public, we might begin by trying to keep our new employees safe and secure! Even under the most trying conditions, there are "best practice" steps that prudent managers can take to mitigate the risk of injury to workers.
First, study your lines of production: in this case, anticipate the flow of baggage throughout the system. Minimize the ergonomic strains. Either align conveyer belts with X-ray machines, or provide mechanical lifts. Sure this costs money, but in the two years between 2002 and 2004 taxpayers have already spent $67 million on lost work days and medical bills for injured workers; a comparable investment in good ergonomics would pay for itself!
Be clear about the essential job functions. If constant heavy lifting is in fact an essential part of the job, make sure applicants understand this. Perform pre-employment physicals to ensure that they can handle these challenges.
Make sure every worker receives the requisite training. Many airports are so short-staffed, they cannot release employees for training. That is a poor excuse and an invitation to disaster. Indeed, if a baggage screener skips the training, how effective a screener will he or she be?
When your employees identify serious concerns, take immediate steps to address them. In this case, it's clear that the unknown weight of bags moving through the system poses a constant hazard. Every bag is weighed a check in. Why not label them at that time with color-coded tags to alert handlers?

I doubt that anyone really believes that baggage screening is inherently more dangerous than mining or construction. But the data is proving just that. Haste indeed makes waste, in this instance, the waste of disabling injuries for hundreds of workers who thought they were just beginning their new careers in federal service.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 9:43 AM Link to, Comment (2), or E-mail this post
March 10, 2005

Airport baggage screening: a high hazard job

USA Today recently ran a feature on airport baggage screeners and the extraordinarily high rate of injuries that they suffer in the course of their work. Approximately one out of every four workers reports an injury and one out of 8 workers has an injury that requires lost time. Yikes - this makes bag screening one of the nation's most hazardous jobs.

Injured workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than two-thirds of whom are screeners, missed nearly a quarter-million days of work last year. The lost job time has contributed to a staffing shortage that has strained checkpoint security and lengthened lines at airports.

TSA employees injured on the job missed work in 2004 at five times the rate of the rest of the federal workforce. They were injured four times as often as construction-industry workers and seven times as often as miners.

Most of the injuries are soft tissue strains and sprains resulting from lifting and carrying heavy bags. Since most of the screening machines and checkpoints were added after 9/11 and squeezed in wherever they would fit, few screening stations were designed with an eye to ergonomics. OSHA has issued numerous hazard citations to airports across the country.

Adding to these problems, the TSA staffed up quickly and in most instances, strength tests were not part of the application process, and training - at least from a safety standpoint - was minimal. In a snowballing problem, the more staff injuries and absences there are, the more overworked remaining employees are. According to the article, the staff attrition rate last year was 22%.

This is distressing both for the workers involved and also for airline travelers. Although authorities say that security is not being compromised, it is hard to see how injured, overworked, and poorly trained workers can deliver the best results.

Related:
OSHA Ergonomics eTool on Baggage Handling
Safe Lifting
Safe lifting tecchniques
Lifting Safety: Tips to Help Prevent Back Injuries

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 9:46 AM Link to, Comment (2), or E-mail this post
March 8, 2005

The long tail of insolvencies: Colorado, New York employers face potential assessments

Some employers in Colorado and New York are learning that the so-called long tail of workers comp has more than one meaning. In the wake of a multitude of insurer insolvencies in recent years, many state guaranty funds are buckling under the burden, and turning to employers to help pick up the pieces.

Like many other states, Colorado has been suffering the ill effects of insurer insolvencies. In recent years, at least 14 insurers have gone out of business. The 1971 demise of Reliance is the most prominent and most notorious example. The Colorado Insurance Guaranty Association has been paying claims for injured workers of the insolvent insurers, but the Association now faces more than $40 million in unfunded liabilities. To shore up the troubled fund and continue paying claimants, the Association has taken to a new tactic: billing 26 of Colorado's larger employers more than $2 million.

... recently, employers have been surprised by letters announcing, in some cases, that they owe the association hundreds of thousands of dollars for claims that were paid. The association has had the power to recover money from large employers for more than 10 years, experts say, but few policyholders knew about it.

It has only been recently -- within the last 18 months -- the association has sought payment.

This comes as an unwelcome surprise to the employers who are being assessed. Employers are already contributing to the guaranty fund by way of a 2% surcharge on their premium.

This is a scenario that may soon be playing out in New York as well in the form of increased employer assessments. We recently posted an item about the dire straights of the Workers' Compensation Security Fund. The Fund was scheduled for complete exhaustion as of the end of February leaving 7.500 injured workers in the lurch, but a deus ex machina in the form of an unexpected sum of cash from another state fund and from the liquidators of Home Insurance Co. bought a few weeks.

Among the proposals to shore up the Fund:

A doubling of assessments on some employers is part of the Pataki administration's recommended solution to the impending bankruptcy of the Workers' Compensation Security Fund, along with borrowing $50 million from another state insurance fund. Both are subject to approval by the state Legislature.

Colorado and New York aren't alone, simply the two states that are in the headlines this week. Obviously these short-term fixes are band-aids at best, and injured workers and employers alike deserve more security and more protection from our industry.

For those of you interested in a more in-depth treatment of the issue of insurer insolvencies, here are two policy-orientated papers of note:

Managing the Cost of Property-Casualty Insurer Insolvencies in the U.S. (PDF) from the Center for Risk Management and Insurance Research, Georgia State University, December 2002. Note that one of the authors of this report is a fellow blogger, Martin Grace of RiskProf.

Managing Insurer Insolvency 2003 (PDF) prepared for the Foundation for Agency Management Excellence by Stewart Economics, Inc., September 2003.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 9:43 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 7, 2005

Hispanic Fatalities on the job: the Tip of the Iceberg

An article by Liz Mineo in the Metro West Daily News highlights the unacceptably high rate of fatalities among Hispanic workers. According to the U.S. Labor Department's National Census of Occupational Injuries, of the 5,559 fatal work injuries in the nation in 2003, 14 percent were Hispanics or Latinos. Blacks accounted for 10 percent. Asians were 1 percent. Whites represented 72 percent. For pure numbers, additional information and details can be found at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website. For a more impassioned take on the current crisis in workplace safety, visit Jordan Barab's valuable website, Confined Space.

When seeking causes for the high rate of fatalities among Hispanic workers, we can isolate specific problems: marginal job conditions with a minimal safety focus, language and education issues and employer indifference. As immigrant laborers, many Hispanic workers are compelled to accept jobs and working conditions that others can walk away from.

Not Just Fatalities
The Metro West article quotes Francyslene Miranda, safety and health coordinator at the Allston (MA) Brazilian Immigrant Center, who tries to secure workers compensation benefits for injured workers.

Last year, Miranda dealt with more than 100 cases. Few of these workers have received any help at all from their employers. Employers rarely report claims to their insurance carrier (assuming of course that they even carry the mandated insurance -- see our related blogs). To keep the injured workers silent, many of these employers threaten to turn the workers over to immigration authorities. As a result, undocumented workers are exposed to the most ruthless forms of exploitation.

"When they work, they pay them under the table, but when they get injured, they (say) they don't know them," said Miranda. "Many times, workers are afraid of retaliation and they don't report their employers. They don't know that even if they're undocumented they still have rights."

Miranda's work underlines a significant issue. The data on work injuries involving immigrant workers is simply not accurate. Most injuries go unreported -- because workers are afraid of retaliation and because they are not aware of their rights under workers compensation laws. There are those who would have us believe that injury rates have been declining, along with workplace fatality rates. But in the secretive world of immigrant labor, in the hard-scrabble lives of many Hispanic immigrants, the dangers have never been greater, even as the voices of protest have rarely been more muted.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 4:10 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post

World Congress of Safety & Health at Work to be held in U.S.

This year marks the first time that the World Congress of Safety & Health at Work will convene in the U.S. The event is scheduled for Sept. 18-22 in Orlando with a theme of "Prevention in a Globalized World - Success through Partnerships." This is a triennial event - the last Congress met in Vienna in 2002. Dupont has been named the key sponsor. Organizers include the United Nations’ International Labor Organization, the International Social Security Association, and the National Safety Council, the U.S. host for the event. The event is expected to attract more than 3,000 leaders from around the world in government, labor, industry and academia.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:21 AM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 4, 2005

Avoid Comp Premiums...and Pay the Price

We have been following the aftermath of the tragic Station night club fire that took place just over a year ago in Rhode Island. The Providence Journal (registration required) has done a terrific job of tracking the many legal cases emerging from the fire. One hundred people died, including a number of nightclub employees. There are many unresolved liability issues stemming from the fire: is the town liable for negligent fire inspection? who sold the fire-prone tiles to the club? who installed the tiles? how much liability rests with the band, Great White, who started the fire with their pyrotechnics? While these issues are still unresolved, the workers comp situation is starkly clear: Judge Bruce Q. Morin has determined that the nightclub's owners, brothers Michael and Jeffrey Derderian, and their company, Derco LLC, are "jointly and individually" liable for the workers' compensation benefits of at least four employees who died in the fire.

At this point, the employees's families are owed death and dependency benefits totaling over $200,000. The Derderians, lacking insurance, are liable for the benefits themselves. Of course, they plan to appeal, just as they have appealed the $1 million dollar fine slapped on them by a comp judge last year.

In the world of business, insurance is often viewed as an "expense." And when your profit margins are tight, the temptation to cut expenses can be great. But in the nearly 100 years of coverage in America (beginning in 1910 in New York), workers comp has become a fundamental benefit of employment. You can argue whether the system is working as well as it should and we can all point to abuses on both sides (employer and employee), but few would argue that the program itself is not needed. Indeed, the Derderian brothers have become an object lesson in bad management: while catastrophe may be highly unlikely, that does not mean it cannot happen. And unless you have the nearly infinite resources to absorb the risk, you'd best secure the modestly priced insurance that provides a safety net for your employees.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 3:24 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post
March 3, 2005

Weblog roundup: workplace violence, volunteers, unions, smoking restrictions & more

Diane Pfadenhauer at Strategic HR Lawyer offers workplace violence prevention resources and Michael Fox at Jottings by an Employer's Lawyer reports on a $2.25 million award in a recent case revolving around violence in the workplace.

Professor Martin Grace at Risk Prof comments on our discussion about volunteers. Ted Frank at Overlawyered has been following the $17M award against Archdiocese of Milwaukee that these posts were based on.

We are happy to see that Kiva.com is back after a hiatus, a great resource for workers comp news, with an emphasis on Ohio.

Jordan Barab at Confined Space continues to shine light on some of the nation's most important work safety issues as well as some of the nation's most egregious violators. Be sure to read his recent discussion The New AFL-CIO: Wither Safety & Health? on role that unions have played in health and safety, and the murky future ahead with declining union membership.

RawblogXport points us to a story in Hazards about the approximately 2 million people killed by their work every year throughout the world.

Joe Paduda at Managed Care Matters discussed future health care costs - a timely topic since medical expenses now represent the greater part of the benefit dollar. He also offers a preview of the prescription drug management in workers comp survey that his firm conducts each year.

Ever wonder about how many employers there are in a similar size to your company? Anita Campbell offers a nice pyramid chart depicting size of various market segments.

Workplace Fairness - Flash in the Pan, or Threatening Trend: Workplace Smoking Restrictions.

Congratulations to Thoughts from a Management Lawyer for a crisp new look and new site address. While visiting, catch the post on the recent Nova Scotia Court of Appeal reversal of a workers comp stress claim.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 8:52 AM Link to, Comment (1), or E-mail this post
March 2, 2005

2004 Workers Compensation Premium Rate State Ranking Summary

A reader put our "google-fu' to a serious test with this question: "I am very interested to know if there is a free website or publication that will show a side-by-side cost comparison showing all 50 states' workers' comp insurance rates for the employer. I want to see which states have less expensive rates."

After some searching, we found a 2004 Workers Compensation Premium Rate Ranking Summary (PDF) put out by Oregon's Department of Consumer and Business Services. Apparently, this snapshot is issued every two years. It includes a color-coded map and a chart that offers more detailed information, such as the 2002 rates so that you can learn if a state is trending up or down. California, Alaska, and Florida have the dubious distinctions of having the highest rates; they are the only three jurisdictions that exceed $4.00 per $100 of payroll. There are 9 states with premium rates less than $2.00 per $100 in premium. Ranked from lowest to highest, these include North Dakota, Indiana, Arizona, Arkansas, Virginia, Utah, Massachusetts, Kansas, and Iowa.

We invite readers who know of other free resources comparing the 50 states to post them in the comments.

Credit where credit is due: we came by this link from another Northwest source - the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO issues a daily news headline aggregator for local, state, and national news of interest to organized labor. It's a good resource for tracking employment-related issues.

Posted by Julie Ferguson at 7:27 AM Link to, Comment (2), or E-mail this post
March 1, 2005

Are Unhappy Workers at Increased Risk for Prolonged Disability?

The Conference Board, a New York-based business research group, recently issued the findings of a job satisfaction survey of American workers. The findings were picked up in newspapers around the country, including the Boston Globe. The results should be of interest -- and concern -- to workers compensation and disability carriers alike.

The survey of 5,000 households found that only half of all workers are really happy with their jobs, down from nearly 59 percent in 1995. Of those who are happy, about 14 percent say they are very satisfied, on par with the group's last survey in 2003 and down from 18.4 percent in 1995.

The long-term drop in job satisfaction has been driven by rapid changes in technology, employers' push for productivity, and shifting expectations among workers, said Lynn Franco, director of the group's Consumer Research Center.

''As large numbers of baby boomers prepare to leave the workforce, they will be increasingly replaced by younger workers, who tend to be as dissatisfied with their jobs but have different attitudes and expectations about the role of work in their lives," Franco said. ''This transition will present a new challenge for employers." And, I would add, insurers.

To be sure, the drop in job satisfaction varies by age and income. The biggest decline in on-the-job happiness was among workers earning $25,000 to $35,000 and among workers between the ages of 35 to 44. It's not surprising that job dissatisfaction follows low wages and skimpy benefits.

Implications for Insurers
One line in the press release really hit me: "This information reveals that approximately one-quarter of the American workforce is simply “showing up to collect a paycheck." I can't help but reflect on this whopping 25% of workers who apparently hate their jobs. What would happen if they were injured on the job and started collecting indemnity payments -- in other words, they start being paid for not working. At the same time, even though they lack health benefits in their low paying jobs, workers compensation now covers all of their work-related treatments, with no co-pays and no deductibles. Assuming the employer is educated enough to want these low wage earners back, how would they get them back to productive employment? If I truly hate my job, I'd probably prefer getting paid for not doing it!

As consultants to employers and insurers, LynchRyan emphasizes the need to build a positive work culture. Unhappy workers are less productive, less motivated and at higher risk for prolonged disability. The quality of their performance suffers along with their attitudes. A positive work culture recognizes individual contribution and makes it worthwhile for the individual employee to show up and perform the job. When workers are reduced to just showing up for the paycheck, the magnitude of the risks for employers and insurers can hardly be overstated.

Posted by Jon Coppelman at 3:54 PM Link to, Comment (0), or E-mail this post