Thursday, September 15, 2011

A few weeks ago I attended the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commission’s 97th annual convention in Madison, Wisconsin. Wisconsin was the first state to have a constitutional worker's compensation law and that centenary was a central theme of the convention. While other states in the U.S. have some claim to concurrent or even earlier laws, Wisconsin probably wins by virtue of the first fatality claim being paid under legislation declared valid by the state’s Supreme Court.   

As a speaker, I was honoured to receive a commemorative coin specially minted for the centennial. The antique bronze medallion bears the image of the Wisconsin capital building and the state’s motto, “Forward” on one side. On the obverse, a stylized “W” and character illustrate the compromise that was reached a century ago. The presentation case included a card stating I would also receive a printed commemorative volume of the “reflections” on the history and development of workers’ compensation in the U.S., but you can read the content of those reflections online. By the way, the placement of the apostrophe on the coin is correct. Wisconsin’s system is the “worker’s compensation” system; all others in Canada and the U.S. use the plural possessive “workers’ compensation.” (More trivia: another exception to the plural-possessive rule is the title of the legislation in British Columbia, which omits the apostrophe altogether). 

The importance of workers’ compensation as social legislation as opposed to pure insurance, was also underscored in part by reference to the 50th anniversary celebrations held in 1961. While in the present environment it may not be possible to garner the same attention, for that anniversary the U.S. Post Office issued a stamp, and President Kennedy gave an address in recognition of the half century milestone.

What was fascinating about the various sessions exploring the development of workers’ compensation in the U.S. was the focus on its nature as a compromise, and its intent as mechanism to improve the health and safety of workers. I was impressed how often the theme of occupational health and safety was presented both in its historical sense and as the present and yet undiscovered land (after all, we have been at it for 100 years and we have yet to achieve safe workplaces free of work-related injury, illness and death). Several presenters made reference to the 1972 Report on National Commission on Workmen’s Compensation. The commission was chaired by John F. Burton, Jr. who was an honoured guest at the convention. It is interesting to note the commission’s view on prevention: 
"We recommend that insurance carriers be required to provide loss prevention services, and that the workmen's compensation agency carefully audit these services. State-operated workmen's compensation funds should provide similar accident prevention services under independent audit procedures where practicable."

A hundred years on, one has to wonder how much of a priority prevention services really are.

On a similar note, OSHA in the U.S. appears to be evaluating if state OSHA programs are living up to their requirements to offer occupational safety and health programs at the state level that are of equivalent effectiveness as those offered by the national agency. The enhanced Federal Annual Monitoring and Evaluation (FAME) reports make interesting reading for any agency that has a prevention mandate. Timeliness of reports, what’s included in databases, and how enforcement is being done are all included. In the ones I’ve read, there are also responses from the state agencies with concrete actions and commitments.   

I’ll have more from this event in a later post.

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