Archive for March, 2005

No bargains to be had in shortchanging trucking safety

Monday, March 21st, 2005

Most of us like bargains. We almost all feel good when we can save a few pennies here and a few dollars there at the grocery store or the mall. But when is a bargain not a bargain? Maybe when we trade the potential for saving a few cents with safety on our highways.
Recently, a new regulation proposed extending the number of hours that truckers can work each day from 14 to 16. Representative John Boozman (R-AK) sponsored the bill, which some have dubbed “the Wal-mart Amendment” because the world’s largest retailer has been in the forefront of pressing for the changes. It might more aptly be called the “What were they thinking” bill. This is one of those issues that concerns the safety of both the worker and the general public. About 5,000 people, more or less, are killed in big-rig fatalities each year. Let’s look at a few work driving fatality statistics from NIOSH:

  • From 1992 through 2001, roadway crashes were the leading cause of occupational fatalities in the U.S., accounting for 13,337 civilian worker deaths (22% of all injury-related deaths).
  • Truck drivers, who are included among Transportation/Material Mover occupations, had a rate of 17.6 deaths per 100,000 FTE, a rate considerably higher than that for this occupation group as a whole.
  • Vehicles occupied by fatally injured workers were most often semi-trucks (3,780, 28%), cars (3,140, 24%), other and unspecified trucks (2,359, 18%), and pickup trucks (1,607, 12%).
  • Between 1992 and 2001, truck occupant deaths increased, as car occupant deaths decreased.
  • Crashes involving large trucks (more than 10,000 lb. gross vehicle weight rating) were 7 times as likely to be fatal to other motorists as to truck occupants. An average of 4,425 motorists involved in collisions with large trucks died each year from 1992 through 2001, compared to 681 large-truck occupants.

Long driving hours: a recipe for fatigue
The current Hours of Service were revised in 2004, extending the allowable hours for driving from 10 to 11, but limiting the maximum duty period down from 15 to 14 hours. The three non-driving hours are for breaks, meals, loading and unloading, etc. Proposed legislation would increase the hours of duty to 16 and the hours of driving to 14. Rep. Boozman seems to think this will increase driver safety.
The Asheville Daily Record frames the issue when they pose the questions “While locked onto the flank of an 18-wheeler in the narrow Pigeon River Gorge on a rainy day, have you ever wondered just how tired the driver of that spray-throwing behemoth next to you is?”
The Daily Record has been an advocate of truck and highway safety over the years. They have an excellent editorial on the topic entitled Trucker fatigue still an issue; give drivers a big say in any workday changes that will be available for a few more days before being archived. It�s worth a read. They point out that a 16-hour workday is the equivalent of two full workdays for most people, and suggest that the matter of hours be best left to federal regulators and the truckers themselves:
Settling on the best formula for truck drivers’ hours is best left to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), not to retailers and the trucking industry, which have much more interest in profits than what is best for the guys behind the wheel.
The FMCSA is in the midst of revising these rules, and should be gathering testimony from the truckers themselves. Congress should stay out of this process.

Boozman withdrew the bill last week in the wake of protest, but it is likely it will resurface again since some of the largest retailers are lobbying hard for extended trucking hours.
We’ve previously blogged about how extended hours and fatigue on the part of workers with a public trust can become a can become a public hazard. (See When injured workers meet tired doctors). From our perspective, tired workers are a hazard to themselves and to others. Extending trucker hours will result in more accidents and more deaths. Sometime later, public outrage and lawsuits will cause the pendulum to swing the other way again. In workers’ comp, it doesn’t take long to learn that cutting corners usually doesn’t pay – a short-term gain can be quickly outweighed by a long-term loss. There are no bargains when it comes to short-changing safety.
More resources
Work Related Roadway Crashes: Who’s at Risk
Truck Drivers Should Grab the Wheel When it Comes to Sleep Management
How to share the road with truckers
Driver Fatigue Quiz

The Myth of the Molly Maguires

Thursday, March 17th, 2005

I thought it might be an interesting commemoration of my Irish heritage to do a post about work conditions that my forebears faced as they immigrated to U.S. shores after the potato famine. Many were involved in the hard labor of building out the impressive canals, dams, and public works projects of the era. But as can easily happen in web wanderings, my searches took me a bit further afield, yet turning up some documents of note, such as an article in the Irish Examiner entitled “They

Fixing Workers Comp

Wednesday, March 16th, 2005

A news round up reveals a number of states trying to fix problems in workers compensation. Not surprisingly, two of the highest cost states are trying to take action: Texas and Alaska. In any reform effort, the fault lines in the comp system are exposed. Reform always entails an attempt to control costs. When you control costs, some one loses: it might be doctors; it might be insurers; it may well be attorneys, but it is almost always injured employees. We think that reform can make winners of everyone, but first let’s have a look at the news.
In Texas, second only to California for costs, half of the employers opt out of the workers compensation system. This means they prefer the

Tsunamis: Who’s at Risk?

Tuesday, March 15th, 2005

We don’t often refer readers to a single site, but today we make an exception for an extraordinary explication of Tsunamis to be found at Guy Carpenter, a risk and insurance subsidiary of March & McLennan Companies. In this elegant and comprehensive document, we learn the science of tsunamis — where and how they originate and the magnitude of their destructive powers. We learn not only about what happened recently, but of the risks for similar incidents that exist all across the globe.
Last year’s disaster was triggered by the 4th largest earthquake since 1900. There have been incidents of even greater scale, but the impact was mitigated by smaller water-side populations. These days it seems that everyone wants to be near the water. A volcanic eruption on the Greek Island of Santorini in 1638 B.C.triggered a tsunami 165 feet high, which was felt across the Mediterranean (the more recent incident in the Indian Ocean topped out at a mere 50 feet). During the First World War, a French munitions ship, the SS Mont Blanc, collided with another vessel and exploded, sending a 60 foot high wall of water into Halifax, Nova Scotia, killing over 2,000 people.
Avoiding Tsunamis
If you are trying to gauge your personal risk in this terrifying area, the risk analysts at Guy Carpenter suggest that the Indian Ocean is most likely to suffer a tsunami, with the Pacific Ocean (and our own west coast) at higher risk than the Atlantic coast. But east-coast dwellers have no reason to sleep smugly in their ocean-view beds. If the Cumbra Vieja volcano on the island of Palma were to erupt (and it will within a hundred years or so), it is likely to trigger a huge landslide that may in turn produce a tsunami that would bring 33 to 82 foot waves against the Atlantic coastline. Those dwelling on the coast can do their own math.
We offer these thoughts not to depress, but to enlighten. Let’s remember that for all our actuarial expertise, for all our sophisticated risk evaluation, we live on a volatile planet.
(Kudos to the authors, Julian Alovisi, Nick Hassam, David Logan and Angus Milligan. And thanks to our colleague Peter Rousmaniere for pointing the way to this fascinating document.)

Where There’s Smoke, You’re Fired

Monday, March 14th, 2005

On a bitter cold day in the dead of winter a few years back, I drove into the underground parking garage of a major insurance company. There were dozens of people huddled outside the elevators. I first assumed that there was a fire drill and the building had been evacuated. On second look, I discovered that these were employees who wanted to smoke. They were “outside” — albeit, underground. I think it was simply too cold to smoke at the street level. I wondered whether the exposure to bitter cold would compound the health risks of these people, who had been banished from the indoor space to indulge their habits.
Smoking is frequently in the news. Weyco, a Michigan-based health care benefits company, announced recently that it would terminate any employees who persisted in smoking, on or off the job. The company pointed to the higher cost of health care for smokers — which they estimate at $4,000 per employee — and to the fact that they are in the health business, coordinating cost-effective health care for employers. It is interesting to note that they have one employee in Illinois, which prohibits discrimination against smokers. If this employee chooses to smoke, there is nothing Weyco can do about it. I can almost see the smirk when he or she lights up!
There are currently 29 states that prohibit discrimination against smokers (listed here). That means there are 23 that allow employers to refuse to hire and retain people who smoke. Unlike the use of illegal drugs, smoking is not an illegal activity per se. You just cannot do it in many places. Some of the pro-smoker websites point out that even where smoking is illegal (bars, for example), some judges have ruled that the bar owner has no obligation to enforce the statute.
Workplace fairness, a pro-smoker website, points out the downside of this type of discrimination. Across-the-board policies result in the termination of skilled employees, whose services are valued, even if they are at higher risk for prolonged illness and even if the cost of their healthcare is higher than other employees. They raise caution flags about the loss of privacy in our culture: not only is smoking prohibited on the job, you can be fired for lighting up at home. And they wonder what’s next: if smoking is a cause for termination, what other “unprotected” activities will follow?
The struggle between smoker rights and non-smoker rights is one of the great cultural divides, playing out in workplaces and in public settings across the country. It will be interesting to see what happens in the coming years. There was a flurry of legislative activity in the early 1990s to enact smoker-protection laws. It’s probably safe to assume that list of 29 states with protections for smokers will not change much. Like so many other issues, this one will head into the courtrooms, where conflicting rights will play out in front of a judge — who may or may not slip out the back of the courthouse for quick puff.

Follow up: Haste and Waste in Airport Security

Friday, March 11th, 2005

Yesterday’s blog on the extraordinarily high injury rates for airport baggage screeners came at an interesting time for me. I had just spent 7 hours waiting for a plane in the Philadelphia airport, for a 40 minute flight to Harrisburg that could have been (and next time will be) driven in two hours. The rule of travel these days seems to be “hurry up and wait.” For baggage screeners, it is “hurry up and get hurt.”
The massive hiring of 45,000 security people in the Transportation Security Administration is a classic case study in “not-exactly the best” management practices. Indeed, LynchRyan cautions employers that the “good times” of expansion come with a very high risk for injuries and losses, simply due to the fact that you have to hire so many strangers. Safe hiring, under the best of circumstances, is a huge management challenge. When you combine a new occupation with difficult working conditions and ambiguous job descriptions, you have a recipe for serious trouble.
Here are just a few of the mishandled items (no pun intended) in the ramp up of airport baggage screeners:
First, set yourself unrealistic deadlines for getting up and running. This results in a mad scramble to find live bodies. When you hire 45,000 people in a short period of time, you are going to make a lot of mistakes.
Then, develop your job description as you go. In this case, it turns out that the job involves a lot more heavy lifting than originally contemplated. On a busy shift, baggage screeners might lift a bag every 7 seconds, with bags routinely weighing over 50 pounds. Handlers usually have no way of knowing how much a bag weighs, so they are often injured by misjudging the weight. The original hiring did not look for exceptional physical fitness — and if it had, qualified candidates might have been hard to come by.
Next, set up a production system where the ergonomic stresses are maximized. In this case, there is a lot of awkward lifting from conveyer belt (low to the ground) to X-ray machine (waist high), then back to conveyer belt. Again, the under-estimated weight of the luggage became a big factor in subsequent injuries.
After that, when you have a rash of injuries, wait for OSHA to come in and tell you what you are doing wrong. Under no circumstances should you listen carefully to employee concerns and address them in a timely manner.
Finally, add in ferocious time pressures: the baggage must get on the planes, so create a frantic pace for the work, thereby maximizing the opportunity for injury. If safety stops in the x-ray machines slow you down, simply by-pass them, even if doing so creates additional hazards for workers.
A Better Way
A massive undertaking of this nature has unavoidable risks. But if the goal is to ensure the security of the traveling public, we might begin by trying to keep our new employees safe and secure! Even under the most trying conditions, there are “best practice” steps that prudent managers can take to mitigate the risk of injury to workers.
First, study your lines of production: in this case, anticipate the flow of baggage throughout the system. Minimize the ergonomic strains. Either align conveyer belts with X-ray machines, or provide mechanical lifts. Sure this costs money, but in the two years between 2002 and 2004 taxpayers have already spent $67 million on lost work days and medical bills for injured workers; a comparable investment in good ergonomics would pay for itself!
Be clear about the essential job functions. If constant heavy lifting is in fact an essential part of the job, make sure applicants understand this. Perform pre-employment physicals to ensure that they can handle these challenges.
Make sure every worker receives the requisite training. Many airports are so short-staffed, they cannot release employees for training. That is a poor excuse and an invitation to disaster. Indeed, if a baggage screener skips the training, how effective a screener will he or she be?
When your employees identify serious concerns, take immediate steps to address them. In this case, it’s clear that the unknown weight of bags moving through the system poses a constant hazard. Every bag is weighed a check in. Why not label them at that time with color-coded tags to alert handlers?
I doubt that anyone really believes that baggage screening is inherently more dangerous than mining or construction. But the data is proving just that. Haste indeed makes waste, in this instance, the waste of disabling injuries for hundreds of workers who thought they were just beginning their new careers in federal service.

Airport baggage screening: a high hazard job

Thursday, March 10th, 2005

USA Today recently ran a feature on airport baggage screeners and the extraordinarily high rate of injuries that they suffer in the course of their work. Approximately one out of every four workers reports an injury and one out of 8 workers has an injury that requires lost time. Yikes – this makes bag screening one of the nation’s most hazardous jobs.
Injured workers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), more than two-thirds of whom are screeners, missed nearly a quarter-million days of work last year. The lost job time has contributed to a staffing shortage that has strained checkpoint security and lengthened lines at airports.
TSA employees injured on the job missed work in 2004 at five times the rate of the rest of the federal workforce. They were injured four times as often as construction-industry workers and seven times as often as miners.

Most of the injuries are soft tissue strains and sprains resulting from lifting and carrying heavy bags. Since most of the screening machines and checkpoints were added after 9/11 and squeezed in wherever they would fit, few screening stations were designed with an eye to ergonomics. OSHA has issued numerous hazard citations to airports across the country.
Adding to these problems, the TSA staffed up quickly and in most instances, strength tests were not part of the application process, and training – at least from a safety standpoint – was minimal. In a snowballing problem, the more staff injuries and absences there are, the more overworked remaining employees are. According to the article, the staff attrition rate last year was 22%.
This is distressing both for the workers involved and also for airline travelers. Although authorities say that security is not being compromised, it is hard to see how injured, overworked, and poorly trained workers can deliver the best results.
OSHA Ergonomics eTool on Baggage Handling
Safe Lifting
Safe lifting tecchniques
Lifting Safety: Tips to Help Prevent Back Injuries

The long tail of insolvencies: Colorado, New York employers face potential assessments

Tuesday, March 8th, 2005

Some employers in Colorado and New York are learning that the so-called long tail of workers comp has more than one meaning. In the wake of a multitude of insurer insolvencies in recent years, many state guaranty funds are buckling under the burden, and turning to employers to help pick up the pieces.
Like many other states, Colorado has been suffering the ill effects of insurer insolvencies. In recent years, at least 14 insurers have gone out of business. The 1971 demise of Reliance is the most prominent and most notorious example. The Colorado Insurance Guaranty Association has been paying claims for injured workers of the insolvent insurers, but the Association now faces more than $40 million in unfunded liabilities. To shore up the troubled fund and continue paying claimants, the Association has taken to a new tactic: billing 26 of Colorado’s larger employers more than $2 million.
… recently, employers have been surprised by letters announcing, in some cases, that they owe the association hundreds of thousands of dollars for claims that were paid. The association has had the power to recover money from large employers for more than 10 years, experts say, but few policyholders knew about it.
It has only been recently — within the last 18 months — the association has sought payment.

This comes as an unwelcome surprise to the employers who are being assessed. Employers are already contributing to the guaranty fund by way of a 2% surcharge on their premium.
This is a scenario that may soon be playing out in New York as well in the form of increased employer assessments. We recently posted an item about the dire straights of the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund. The Fund was scheduled for complete exhaustion as of the end of February leaving 7.500 injured workers in the lurch, but a deus ex machina in the form of an unexpected sum of cash from another state fund and from the liquidators of Home Insurance Co. bought a few weeks.
Among the proposals to shore up the Fund:
A doubling of assessments on some employers is part of the Pataki administration’s recommended solution to the impending bankruptcy of the Workers’ Compensation Security Fund, along with borrowing $50 million from another state insurance fund. Both are subject to approval by the state Legislature.
Colorado and New York aren’t alone, simply the two states that are in the headlines this week. Obviously these short-term fixes are band-aids at best, and injured workers and employers alike deserve more security and more protection from our industry.
For those of you interested in a more in-depth treatment of the issue of insurer insolvencies, here are two policy-orientated papers of note:
Managing the Cost of Property-Casualty Insurer Insolvencies in the U.S. (PDF) from the Center for Risk Management and Insurance Research, Georgia State University, December 2002. Note that one of the authors of this report is a fellow blogger, Martin Grace of RiskProf.
Managing Insurer Insolvency 2003 (PDF) prepared for the Foundation for Agency Management Excellence by Stewart Economics, Inc., September 2003.

Hispanic Fatalities on the job: the Tip of the Iceberg

Monday, March 7th, 2005

An article by Liz Mineo in the Metro West Daily News highlights the unacceptably high rate of fatalities among Hispanic workers. According to the U.S. Labor Department’s National Census of Occupational Injuries, of the 5,559 fatal work injuries in the nation in 2003, 14 percent were Hispanics or Latinos. Blacks accounted for 10 percent. Asians were 1 percent. Whites represented 72 percent. For pure numbers, additional information and details can be found at the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website. For a more impassioned take on the current crisis in workplace safety, visit Jordan Barab’s valuable website, Confined Space.
When seeking causes for the high rate of fatalities among Hispanic workers, we can isolate specific problems: marginal job conditions with a minimal safety focus, language and education issues and employer indifference. As immigrant laborers, many Hispanic workers are compelled to accept jobs and working conditions that others can walk away from.
Not Just Fatalities
The Metro West article quotes Francyslene Miranda, safety and health coordinator at the Allston (MA) Brazilian Immigrant Center, who tries to secure workers compensation benefits for injured workers.
Last year, Miranda dealt with more than 100 cases. Few of these workers have received any help at all from their employers. Employers rarely report claims to their insurance carrier (assuming of course that they even carry the mandated insurance — see our related blogs). To keep the injured workers silent, many of these employers threaten to turn the workers over to immigration authorities. As a result, undocumented workers are exposed to the most ruthless forms of exploitation.
“When they work, they pay them under the table, but when they get injured, they (say) they don’t know them,” said Miranda. “Many times, workers are afraid of retaliation and they don’t report their employers. They don’t know that even if they’re undocumented they still have rights.”
Miranda’s work underlines a significant issue. The data on work injuries involving immigrant workers is simply not accurate. Most injuries go unreported — because workers are afraid of retaliation and because they are not aware of their rights under workers compensation laws. There are those who would have us believe that injury rates have been declining, along with workplace fatality rates. But in the secretive world of immigrant labor, in the hard-scrabble lives of many Hispanic immigrants, the dangers have never been greater, even as the voices of protest have rarely been more muted.

World Congress of Safety & Health at Work to be held in U.S.

Monday, March 7th, 2005

This year marks the first time that the World Congress of Safety & Health at Work will convene in the U.S. The event is scheduled for Sept. 18-22 in Orlando with a theme of “Prevention in a Globalized World – Success through Partnerships.” This is a triennial event – the last Congress met in Vienna in 2002. Dupont has been named the key sponsor. Organizers include the United Nations