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January 12, 2004

Campus team tackles UCSC’s workers’ comp crisis

By Jennifer McNulty

The campus team charged with tackling UCSC’s workers’ compensation crisis had a clear message for the audience of about 125 people who turned out January 7 to hear their progress report: Prevention is the key.

UCSC’s injury rate is 7.45 per 100 full-time employees, compared with a low in the UC system of about 3.7 per 100 full-time employees at UCSF.

Saddled with the highest injury rates in the UC system, the Santa Cruz campus must reduce the number of employee injuries, and the best way to bring the numbers down is to create a culture of prevention, said Lisa Rose, director of materiel management and a member of the Executive Budget Committee team assigned to workers’ compensation.

The presentation was the latest in a series of forums sponsored by the Staff Advisory Board (SAB) to keep the campus informed of budget-related activities on campus.

UCSC’s injury rate is 7.45 per 100 full-time employees, compared with a low in the UC system of about 3.7 per 100 full-time employees at UCSF.

In addition, UCSC has a high proportion of more serious “indemnity” claims that involve the loss of more than three days of work and more extended medical care than “medical” claims, in which employees lose a maximum of three days of work and care is not expected to exceed six months or $2,500.

The campus’s long-term problem has reached new levels of urgency since UC’s Office of the President recently began returning “excessive costs” to the campus, said Rose. For UCSC, that means the campus is responsible for $1.2 million in additional costs for fiscal year 2004, a figure that is expected to increase to $1.5 million next year.

The budgetary impact is “like burning money,” said Rose. “We’re hemorrhaging here.”

On the human side, in addition to the pain and suffering of the injured, the costs of UCSC’s current high rate of on-the-job injuries include increased demands placed on colleagues and a loss of efficiency equivalent to 7,000 days a year. “That’s like having a department of 25 people and just exterminating them for one year,” said Rose.

From 1999 to 2003, the campus reported 1,369 injuries, with 30 percent classified as repetitive motion injuries, and 29 percent classified as “physical movement” injuries. Forty percent of UCSC injuries were concentrated in nine job titles, with the heaviest concentrations in the administrative assistant and senior custodian series, with 15 and 9 percent, respectively. Another 7 percent of all injuries were suffered by student assistants, said Rose, noting that the team was “really surprised” by that finding.

Experts say numerous factors contribute to the high frequency and high cost of injuries, including a sense that injuries are “seen as inevitable,” inconsistent training of employees, late reporting of injuries, poor communication, and weaknesses in “return to work” programs.

Some of those factors are at play at UCSC, said team member Saladin Sale, the campus risk manager, who described the reluctance of some employees with repetitive motion injuries to come forward. They choose instead to “kind of heroically keep chugging along as a small ache becomes a major pain.” But chronic injuries are much more difficult to treat and resolve, he said, as he encouraged employees to report all injuries to their supervisors promptly.

The good news, said Sale, is that a focus on injury prevention will go a long way toward reversing the campus’s alarming numbers. Prevention is key because “once we’re in the workers’ compensation system, there’s little we can do to control rising costs,” he said.

The team has identified a five-pronged strategy to address the crisis, and participants have received strong support from top campus administrators for their initiatives, said team member Buddy Morris, director of Environmental Health & Safety at UCSC. The five focus areas are:

Injury prevention. Prevention has to be “part of what we do and how we work,” said Morris. “We all have to accept responsibility for it.” That includes taking personal responsibility for enhancing individual wellness.

Transitional return to work. Improve collaboration among the injured employee, supervisor, and doctor. “Getting back to work promotes healing,” said Morris, adding that employees who are off work for more than 12 weeks are substantially less likely to return to work, and their lifetime earnings can be seriously affected.

Executive leadership. Safety needs to be incorporated as a value, not just a priority, said Morris, who was “thrilled” by the response of campus administrators to the team’s work.

Accountability. In fiscal year 2004, UCSC began allocating workers’ compensation costs back to individual campus departments. Under that system, Rose recently learned that her unit had tallied up $15,000 in injury-related costs. “I sure wish I’d done something else with that money years ago so those injuries never would’ve happened,” she said. The team is also trying to identify additional ways to make accountability everyone’s business, not just executives’, and is weighing a proposal to add a “safety performance” component to annual employee performance appraisals. They would also like to provide incentives that would reward employees for taking proactive injury-prevention actions.

Claims management. Sometimes scapegoated as the “root cause” of all the trouble, the claims management process nevertheless has room for improvement, said Morris. For example, the first visit to a doctor should be to an occupational health specialist (the team is compiling a list of the best specialists in the area). But doctors, supervisors, and employees all need to be educated about how the UCSC workers’ compensation program operates because there are “lots of opportunities for balls to get dropped” in the complex claims process, said Morris.

As the workers’ compensation team continues its work, team member Gesna Clarke, chief operations officer for Colleges and University Housing Services, called on the campus community to integrate safety into their daily work. She presented 10 steps the team has identified that employees can take today to reduce injuries and enhance the workplace. Those tips are available online.

Also on the workers’ compensation transformation team are Ryan Andrews, manager of the fitness center; Barbara Perman, manager of training and development in Staff Human Resources; and Jim Schoonover, environmental health and safety adviser for the Division of Physicial and Biological Sciences.

The next SAB-sponsored forum is tentatively scheduled for March 4 from 12:30 to 1:40 in Classroom Unit 2 to discuss information technology; check online for details.


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Currents article: Staff forum focuses on HR transformation project; second forum to take place November 17

Currents article: Forum on budget process November 5

Currents article: Chancellor says budget planning will yield strategic cost cutting

Slide show on October 21 transformation projects update to managers/supervisors

Currents article: Campus "transformation" begins with info technology consolidation

Executive Budget Committee

UCSC Budget Update site

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