Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is the centenary of workers' comp worth celebrating?

Workers’ compensation in its present form is a concept that is about 100 years old in North America.  Germany celebrated the 125th anniversary of its workers’ compensation last year.  Wisconsin and Ohio are celebrating their century of workers’ compensation in 2011.  In Canada, Ontario will reach the 100 year mark in 2014 while WorkSafeBC’s next hundred years will begin on January 1, 2017.

Is there really something to celebrate?  In one sense, celebration is hardly the word one ought to use for a system that exists because of the injury, disease and death imposed on workers as a consequence of their employment.  Those of us working in worker’s compensation, occupational health and safety, and prevention are keenly aware that our careers flow from failures to secure the safety and health of workers.  On the other hand, it is the sincere belief that we can make a difference that draws us to this work.  There is something positive about having that privilege.

Looking at the past 100 years another way, there are clearly some grounds for celebration.  The establishment of workers’ compensation has certainly provided an alternative to fault systems that often involve lengthy legal battles.  Employers today may not fully comprehend the value proposition contained in the historic compromise that is the basis for workers’ compensation.  No CEO, owner or manager alive today can recall the world before worker’s compensation became the exclusive remedy, barring the injured worker from suing his employer or fellow workers for work-related injury.  Aside from the odd case of non-workers taking action against an employer that gets widely reported in the media, workers have no frame of reference for considering the legal costs and delays that are inherent in most suits.

Workers’ compensation systems have other advantages for employers and workers that are worthy of celebration.  The pooling and mutualization of risks and claims costs by sector provides employers with more predictable costs in the form of relatively stable premiums.  The structure and design of experience rating and discount systems such as COR for employer prevention and disability management programs may also provide incentives for employers to invest in safety and disability management/return-to-work programs.  Safer workplaces and safe, durable return to work for workers are worth celebrating.

The exclusive state fund model is also one worth celebrating.  The German DGUV page for their 125th gives a great little history of the evolution of their system.  The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation flash slide show celebrating its 100 years  is engaging and speaks to the future as well as the past. 

The US Workers’ Compensation Centennial Commission website is another great resource for reflecting on how far workers’ compensation has come.  This distinguished group of business, labour and government leaders  (mostly based in Wisconsin where the centenary celebrations will be held), includes the AFL-CIO, National Association of Manufacturers, former governors and current workers’ compensation administrators.  Sponsors include the AMA, NCCI, ISO and other private insurers, industry services organizations. 

A century of workers’ compensation is worth celebrating.  If workers’ compensation did not exist, I am certain there would be pressure from workers and employers to create it. And despite the wide range of arrangements by which it is achieved, workers’ compensation promises to be a vital and important part of the public policy for many years to come.

Headline news and teachable OH&S moments: can social media play a role?

Workers’ compensation stories rarely make “front page” news or the “top stories” lists on newsfeeds.  Many stories that do attain headline status have a workers’ compensation connection that is often overlooked, missing an important “teachable moment.”

The recent riot in Vancouver that followed the final Stanley Cup game certainly made headlines around the world, but few will hear about the dozens of workers who suffered injuries as a result of that event.  That number may well grow because workers have up to a year to file a claim with WorkSafeBC.  So far, I haven’t read anything in the media regarding the effectiveness of risk assessments employers undertook before or after the riot, and the plans to protect workers from future risks of violence.

The weather in most of North America is another headline story with very little reference to the protection of workers.  Record-breaking heat and humidity are not only uncomfortable, they can be dangerous particularly to workers who have to spend their work hours in that environment.   US Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis, issued a news release on July 20, 2011 to remind employers of their duty to protect workers saying:

 “Employers must take the precautions needed to protect outdoor workers:

§  Have a work site plan to prevent heat-related . . .

§  Provide plenty of water at the job site and remind workers to drink small amounts of water frequently - every 15 minutes.

§  Schedule rest breaks throughout the work shift and provide shaded or air conditioned rest areas near the work site.

§  Let new workers get used to the extreme heat, gradually increasing the work load over a week.

§  When possible, schedule heavy tasks for earlier in the day.

Tell workers what to look for to spot the signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke in themselves and their co-workers, and make sure they know what to do in an emergency.”

All of this is great advice, but is the story reaching the intended audience?  A simple search on Google News will show more than 10,000 recent stories on the heat wave; only a dozen or so mentioned employers’ responsibilities for their workers.   From a random sampling of stories with some reference to employers’ responsibilities or practical advice for workers, the references were well down in the text and far below the newsfeed summary or Tweet limit of 140 characters. 

Hazard Alerts and other targeted communications have the potential to reach audiences who need the information but these rely heavily on employers and safety officers self-selecting to receive this sort of communication. 

Now that most of us are headline news consumers, even stories that do contain great information may not be reaching the people who need to hear the message and learn from it.  I’m not suggesting we abandon rapid response and “push” feeds of safety and health information related to headline events; these strategies work for the thoughtful reader who clicks beyond the headline.   And there is no doubt in my mind that linking employer responsibilities and safety advice to headline stories is a potentially strong learning opportunity.  I am suggesting that new approaches to disseminating timely safety and health information need to be developed to reach receptive audiences.  In the age of Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, effective use of social media needs to be part of the answer.

Next time you are looking at your newsfeed, Flipboard app or Google News summary, look at some of the local headline stories and ask yourself, as a worker or employer, what would these circumstances mean to my occupational safety and health?  If you find a good story that does use a current headline as a teachable health and safety or workers’ compensation moment,  re-tweet the story or share it with a friend.