The Most Dangerous Job in Philadephia?

March 3rd, 2008 by

If you were to guess which jobs for the city of Philadelphia resulted in the most workers comp claims, you’d probably start with police and fire. These are high risk jobs, for sure, but the losses in these departments pale beside those of the Parking Authority. Patrick Kerkstra at provides the numbers on the cost per claim:
: Firefighters $1,084
: Police $833
: Parking Authority $1,558
The Authority’s risk management director, Allen Dunkelberger, thinks that they have a culture problem. “Sometimes people don’t want to work.” The agency has spent $5.8 million settling comp claims over the last four years. At this point, Dunkelberger cannot tell how much of that was spent on legitimate claims.
He told of one “frequent flyer” who filed claims for being bitten by a spider. Four times. Try as they might, they could not find any spiders in the building where the employee worked.
To be sure, there are significant risks in work performed by the authority: motor vehicle accidents; long hours on foot; slips and falls on icy sidewalks. To which we might add the open-ended risk of motorist rage, where parking enforcement officers (formerly known as “meter maids”) are assaulted after vehicles have been tagged.
Any review of the risks in authority jobs must also take into account the stress: the work of the authority is generally despised by the public, who have to pay the fines for exceeding time on meters and who have to retrieve their towed vehicles from remote parking lots. These are stress jobs with a capital “S.”
A Culture of Abuse
Kerkstra’s article presents images of a work culture run amok. At the top of the food chain, you have problems in the administrative ranks, with the extensive use of high-priced consultants, high salaries and a fleet of SUVs. This type of conspicuous consumption does not go unnoticed by the rank and file. They want their piece of the action; if it involves extending vacation time through the use of workers comp, so be it.
Then there is the authority’s attempt to reduce losses through the use of temporary modified duty. It’s not a model program, to say the least:

The program is reviled by rank-and-file authority workers, and little wonder. It typically consists of standing watch outdoors at authority impoundment lots, often during late-night and early-morning hours.
“Basically you sit there in the cold, in the rain, from 8 pm to 4 am doing nothing,” said an authority parking-enforcement officer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution. “It’s a punishment.”
Dunkelberger knows that the..alternative duty is loathed, but he makes no apologies.
“There are some people here who’ve had literally a dozen workers’ comp claims,” he said. “They’re going to be inherently negative about any method we have for trying to deal with them.”

Note to Dunkelberger: Alternative duty should never be used as a punishment. A punitive program simply reinforces the negative work culture. The authority needs to learn from Ohio State University, whose exemplary program we blogged just last week. Use alternative duty as an incentive for full recovery. Place injured (even allegedly injured) employees into useful positions where their time is valued and their contributions are real. You cannot punish people into recovering; you have to support and nurture them. Modified duty without respect and compassion is ultimately worse than no modified duty at all.
The high cost of comp is symptomatic of much larger culture issues within the organization. There are many paths to improvement, but punishing injured employees by isolating them at night in parking lots is certainly not one of them. That’s a “solution” that will make the problem worse.
The work culture needs improvement, so fix it. Good employees need to be rewarded; the bad eggs need to be terminated. Senior management needs to clean up its act. Once these fundamental changes take place, workers comp will no longer be an issue. Under a positive work culture, modified duty will no longer be viewed as a punishment. It will be what it is supposed to be: a clear, well-lit path for returning valued employees as quickly as possible to their full duty jobs.