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Playing It Safe
by Jeff Mollet

You have probably had to deal with a workplace injury by now, some of which were serious enough to cause an employee to miss substantial time and to qualify for workers’ compensation benefits. This is a common event across our great country, and it has been estimated that workplace injuries cost our economy more than $100 billion annually. Since nearly all states have some form of workers’ compensation legislation in place, and each create “strict liability” for the employer, it is important to understand the process.

Simply put, “strict liability” means that if a worker is hurt while on the job, the employer is generally liable no matter what caused the injury, even if it is the employee’s own negligence or an injury occurring through no fault of the employer. The trade off is that the law then puts limitations on the ability of an employee to sue the employer and the amount of money that can be collected. This scenario, at least in theory, is designed to protect the income and recovery of the employee without allowing litigation that could bankrupt the employer. To ensure the stability of the system and the availability of funds to pay valid claims, most states also require an employer to carry workers’ compensation insurance or to participate in some state-approved self-insurance trust or pool.

Since strict liability is applicable to workers’ compensation claims (i.e., an injury = a claim = a payout = increased premiums), it is imperative that companies guard against injuries to the greatest extend possible. I am sure that most of you have been inundated with information from your insurance company outlining how to avoid workplace injuries, but it can be beneficial to start the new year by reviewing and reinforcing those safety and workplace protocols you have in place. Obviously, avoiding claims benefits you, the employee and your bottom line.

Thus, the old adage holds true: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The most effective way to control workers' compensation costs is to establish and maintain a safe work environment from the onset. Here are a few items (none of them necessarily new or novel) that you should consider as part of your overall plan of attack on workplace injuries:

1. Establish and update (at least annually) an employee education and training program. This may include training seminars and the quarterly dissemination of safety materials to all employees. For those of you with multiple departments or divisions, you may need to have a general meeting for all employees with specialized sessions later addressing some of the key safety issues affecting only certain groups of employees.

2. Keep a running total of claims and safety. A “Days Worked Without Injury” tote board can be a morale booster, and as the safety streak grows, nobody wants to be the employee who causes it to end. Competition can be a good thing, and if you have departments or divisions, they may want to show each other how its done.

3. Consider the implementation of a “safety bonus” program which provides some form of bonus if certain safety milestones are met. Cash, time off or simple pizza parties can be strong motivation. This can be per employee, per department or company-wide, or even a combination of each. Individual accolades (1 million accident free miles for a trucker for example) can be strong motivation.

4. Post safety materials in key areas of your operation, preferably away from the other “legal” posters that everyone tends to avoid. Simple, to the point materials and signage are available, or perhaps you let the employees create their own so they will take ownership of the process.

5. Get an insurance agent who fully understands workers’ compensation insurance issues and coverage. The simple mis-classification of employees can be costly, as can the purchase of unnecessary or improper coverage.

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