If you want to lower worker's comp costs, don't ignore off-road safety efforts

Most fleets struggle with rising workers' compensation premiums, and don't seem to have a clue about how to lower them. The prevailing mind set is that safety efforts should be focused primarily on reducing truck accidents. Efforts to eliminate or reduce employee injuries due to slips, trips, and falls, as well as bending lifting, are often ignored. Highway safety is certainly a priority, but preventing non-driving workplace accidents also needs to be addressed.

I have a friend (a driver) who was injured in a fall earlier this year while in the process of unloading his cargo. He was climbing an aluminum ladder to check liquid levels in a tank when the base of the ladder slid out on a wet concrete surface; he fell to the ground, breaking his right wrist. The injury kept him off the job for just over 90 days; the worker's compensation claim for that incident was in the range of $35,000 -$50,000.

This driver, who transports hazardous materials such as gasoline, diesel fuel, liquid propane and anhydrous ammonia every day of the week, has never been involved in a truck accident. In fact, he's been named driver of the month by his state trucking association because of this impeccable safety record. And his fleet's "don't even scratch the paint" philosophy has given it an equally impeccable highway safety record.

Unfortunately, my friend's on-the-job injury was not a first for this fleet. In fact, other incidents have resulted in far more tragic consequences.

Accidents like these can be prevented. But it takes planning and effort. Here are some tips for developing and implementing a well-rounded safety program.

To begin with, keep your primary focus on eliminating highway accidents. You'll find that there's a double payback to this approach: less damage and injury to other people and property; and far fewer employee injuries. The first will result in lower auto liability premiums; the second will bring down workers' comp costs. Remember, at an average cost of $35,000 per incident, highway accidents are the leading cause of workers' comp claims.

Secondly, learn to recognize workplace hazards. This is the most important step in improving worker safety, so ask your employees to help you identify them. Ask them to point out conditions or situations that could lead to slips, falls, bending and lifting accidents and push/ pull strain injuries. Then ask your employees to help you determine what can be done to eliminate these hazardous situations.

Finally, have a plan in place to manage injuries once they occur. First, you should insure that each case is being managed effectively and expeditiously. That means making sure your employees don't get trapped in the system waiting for diagnosis, treatment or therapy.

Check on the status of each injured worker at regular intervals. Ask the patient as well as the health care provider when the next treatment is scheduled. If there's a delay, find out what you can do to facilitate the process. These are your dollars; you have a right to be sure they're being spent effectively.

Second, set up return-to-work programs. I know what you're thinking - most of the work that needs to be done is driving. Not to mention the fact that what little light-duty work you have is being done by support staff. But if you look hard enough, you'll find some back-office tasks drivers can do. For example, they're quite capable of taking care of quarterly fuel tax filings, log audits, and vehicle/driver file maintenance.

You need to protect your employees' safety on and off the road. After all, they're your most valuable asset.