Reducing Workers Compensation Claims: Solutions From Plastics Processors

by Staff

According to a report titled Ergonomic Best Practices for the Plastics Industry published by Better Workers’ Compensation through the State of Ohio:

Accidents in the plastics industry remain above the average for all U.S. manufacturing. According to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the rate of occupational injuries in lost workdays nationally was 21 percent higher for plastics processing in 1997 than for all U.S. manufacturing. In addition, the plastics industry’s national occupational injury and illness rate for 1997 was 14 percent higher than for all U.S. manufacturing.

Higher claim percentages often translate to higher rates for adequate insurance coverage, but insurance rates aren’t the only reason to dread workers compensation claims. For every claim filed, at least one employee is off the job for a day, week, or much longer. In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 2,300 cases reported in the plastics manufacturing industry (23 percent of total cases) in 2006 involved employees away from work for 31 or more days. An extended absence can mean that a highly-skilled employee has been replaced by an employee with less training, compromising output quality.

Addressing an excess of workers compensation claims after the insurance company raises your rates is a little like closing the barn door after the animals have headed for greener pastures. The key to reducing workers comp claims – and keeping the industry’s insurance rates low – is proactivity. Plastics Business spoke with three plastics processors to discover strategies for addressing accident incidences, including safety committees, insurance company inspections, and post-accident procedures.

Safety Committees
Dan Cunningham is president and COO of Parish Manufacturing, Inc. The company, located in Indianapolis, Ind., has workers comp claims under control these days, but that wasn’t always the case. Three years ago, Parish Manufacturing implemented a safety committee, holding quarterly safety meetings to review open cases of injuries. The committee also conducts plant tours, looking for potential safety hazards. “The committee has been excellent at uncovering safety hazards, and that has helped out,” Parish said. “It brings to light some things that management may not be aware of.”

Safety committees also are active at York Imperial Plastics in York, Pa. At York, the committee is comprised of six employees and one invited employee guest each month. “Our committee members run from operation leaders to machine operators. All company personnel are invited to participate and members are rotated annually,” explained Bob Holbrook, president. Each month the committee reviews action items and views a video with an eye toward safety training.

The committee serves another important purpose for York, playing a crucial role in obtaining certified status from the state of Pennsylvania. “When you’re a Pennsylvania manufacturer, there is a state certification that you can get for your safety committee. Once you are state certified, with a plan to be addressing safety issues, your company receives a five percent reduction in workers comp premiums,” explained Holbrook. “That saves most companies a couple of thousand dollars.”

The reductions are available because of a workplace safety initiative called WorkSAFE PA®. According to the State of Pennsylvania web site:

The mission and function of the WorkSAFE PA® initiative is to provide Pennsylvania employers and employees with the information and technical assistance needed to develop comprehensive safety practices in the workplace. It will also recognize successful employer-employee joint safety programs, which result in the achievement of safety excellence.

Companies are required to form safety committees comprised of a minimum of two employer and two employee representatives. The safety committee must then meet monthly; keep meeting agendas, attendance lists, and minutes; and be trained in hazard inspection and accident investigation. Once the committee has met for six full months, the company can apply for certification.

Insurance Company Inspections
Insurance companies have a vested interest in keeping workers comp claims low. All three of the companies interviewed for this article have had their insurance companies do a safety “walk through” to help identify potential safety hazards before incidents occur. Mike Walter, general manager for MET Plastics in Elk Grove Village, Ill., noted that the insurance company’s risk management staff often includes an occupational health person. “We paid a safety company to come through and realized they didn’t pick up on anything more than our insurance company would have,” explained Walter.

What types of hazards do insurance companies discover? “We’ve had suggestions come up on deteriorating floor conditions,” said Walter. “They also have uncovered loose or exposed wiring.” At Parish Manufacturing, the walk throughs have looked for exposed wiring, fire safety, trip hazards and signage. “We’ve noticed that appropriate signage is the key,” said Cunningham. “The insurance company wants to make sure we have signs to make people aware of the need for eye protection, ear protection, and steel-toed shoes in a hazardous area.”

Holbrook noted that the insurance company York Plastics is insured through has been very proactive in working with York’s safety committee, attending committee meetings, and offering free safety training. Their goal, according to Holbrook, is to get York’s experience modification as low as possible and keep it there.

Safety Training
The old adage says that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That’s where safety training enters the picture. At Parish, safety classes are provided periodically to cover everything from general lifting procedures to banned equipment (fixed open blade box cutters are not allowed in the plant). “Creating and maintaining a safe work environment, including periodic safety training, seems to discourage people from trying to file false claims,” stated Cunningham.

At Parish, supervisors and managers lead the training sessions, working from lesson plans that were developed several years ago by a consultant. New and temporary employees also are subject to a written orientation that includes safety basics. Safety rules, protective equipment, and MFDS sheets are covered as part of the orientation process at MET Plastics.

At York, the safety committee was asked to heighten safety awareness within the plant and, as a result, leads the training sessions. The committee receives ongoing training, with guests speaking at safety committee meetings on topics ranging from hearing protection and personal safety to blood-born pathogens. Then, as an extra step, the minutes from safety committee meetings are published and placed in envelopes with the employee paychecks.

Post-Accident Procedures
Once an accident occurs, the reaction an employee receives from his employers can make a difference in the time to return-to-work and in the incidences of false claims. The first step is notification. “We emphasize that as soon as an employee is injured, they should say something right away,” stated Walter. “We don’t want them to worry that we’re going to take disciplinary action just because there was an accident. And we ask them to notify supervisors even if it’s a slight issue, which can prevent things from escalating.” MET Plastics works to keep in touch with employees after an injury, both to check on return-to-work status, but also to keep the employee from feeling alienated.

At York, the safety committee takes an active role, getting involved the minute a claim is made. “The committee works to get the employee back on duty as soon as possible,” said Holbrook. “Literally, if an employee breaks his arm, we have him back to work the next day. There’s always something that employee can do, even if he can’t run a machine.”

York has a list of company-approved physicians and local hospitals that are available at the time of an accident. MET Plastics is located in Illinois and is not allowed to require employees to get treatment at a specific facility. “However, if our employees injure themselves on the job,” said Walter, “we send them to a specific clinic unless our employees object. The turnaround in giving care is faster – no sitting in an emergency room for several hours.”

With Parish, work-related injuries are required to be treated by the company-selected medical treatment facility. This treatment facility – Methodist Hospital’s Occupational Health Clinic – specializes in returning people to work and in helping companies avoid false claims. “First they evaluate and treat accordingly,” explained Cunningham. “But through the occupational health center services, the focus is on getting the employee back to work. If they see something suspicious, they report back to us.”

In addition, post-accident drug and alcohol testing has been implemented at Parish Manufacturing and MET Plastics. “It doesn’t reduce accidents, but it does identify potential employee situations,” Cunningham explained.

Above and Beyond
A phone call or visit from OSHA inspectors would make many manufacturing plants extremely nervous. At York, OSHA was another resource to be used in its quest to keep its employees safe and its workers comp claims low. “We solicitied OSHA through the University of Indiana-Pennsylvania,” explained Holbrook. “We asked them to come in and do an audit, in which they presented their findings and a timeframe in which to accomplish their recommendations. That’s being proactive! We didn’t know what they were going to find, but we thought it was a necessary step.”

Plastics manufacturing companies don’t need to invite OSHA for a visit to become more safety conscious, with a goal of reducing workers compensation claims. Implementing a safety committee, adding regular safety training to the workday, and being involved in every claim from accident to return-to-work will go a long way toward reaching that goal.

Plastics Business would like to thank Dan Cunningham, Parish Manufacturing; Mike Walter, MET Plastics; and Bob Holbrook, York Imperial Plastics, for their help with this article.