Byron Floyd figured it wouldn't be easy to get the field service men of Cox Communications Orange County/Palos Verdes-- "a group of guys that wear boots and ride Harleys"--to show up for an early morning stretching class.
"When we first started doing stretching, I was thinking, 'Oh, this is going to go over really lukewarm,'" says Floyd, the field service manager for the Southern California cable company. "Stretching in front of a bunch of guys is usually not something they typically do."
At first there were just a handful of people at the 7 a.m. class. But gradually word spread, and the classes are now very well attended, he says.
Credit, he says, goes to safety manager Elise Fischer, who has introduced a series of innovative programs at Cox, ranging from stretching classes and back schools to health fairs that offer employees and their families screenings for skin cancer, diabetes and high cholesterol.
Rugged as they may be, the field service workers--the people who install the cable and telecommunications services--have families and want to go home and see their children and have fun on vacations, Floyd says.
"She's really done a great job of tying safety into the key to being able to do all those things," he says.
At the center of the wellness initiatives Fischer has introduced is an on-site physical-fitness program called PRO FIT, which uses stretches and gentle exercises similar to the Egoscue Method to help people avoid injuries and stay pain free.
Fischer herself suffered from chronic neck and shoulder pain for many years and found that the Egoscue Method dramatically improved her condition.
After joining Cox as the safety manager eight years ago, she decided to see if the program could help her colleagues as well.
"I wanted to see if other people would get the same results as I did," Fischer says in a telephone interview from her office in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif.
The results? The Southern California cable and telecommunications company's workers' comp incident rate is down 93 percent in eight years, and the average cost per claim is down 94 percent between 2000 and 2004.
The company, a division of Cox Communications that serves about 245,000 basic cable customers in California's Orange County and about 30,000 in nearby Palos Verdes, won an honorable mention in Risk & Insurance®'s 2005 Theodore Roosevelt Workers' Compensation and Disability Management Awards in November.
"I've always believed if you do the right thing, the numbers will take care of themselves," says Fischer, who is now the safety, risk and fleet manager at Cox.
NO PAIN, NO GAIN
A single mom who lives in Orange County with her 14-year-old daughter, Fischer has always had an interest in wellness, health and nutrition and still considers it something of a hobby.
But she didn't exactly plan to go into safety and risk management. She majored in psychology at California State University, Fullerton, and went on to get her M.B.A. from the University of Southern California.
After graduating, Fischer worked for construction and engineering firm Fluor Daniel for a year before becoming the safety manager of the water quality control department for the city of Riverside, located east of Los Angeles. She then moved on to become the safety manager of the Irvine Ranch Water District before joining Cox in 1997.
Throughout that time, she suffered from neck and shoulder pain, which had flared up a couple years after getting her business degree.
Fischer began seeking relief from doctors and chiropractors, to no avail. After a few years of searching, she visited her mother's chiropractor in Colorado, who suggested she try the Egoscue Method, a postural therapy program developed by Pete Egoscue. Back home in California, she found an Egoscue clinic, and after just four months, she was virtually pain free. She had been doing the exercises off and on for several years when she joined Cox.
Upon joining the cable company, Fischer discovered that about 90 percent of the on-the-job injuries came from workers in the field group--the people who drive the vans and install the cable TV service. About 50 percent of those injuries were sprains and other injuries to the back, hips, shoulders and knees.
No wonder. Field workers spend most of their days lugging 30-pound took packs, scaling 28-foot ladders, and crawling around in attics and small crawlspaces.
Because most of the injuries were taking place in one working group, however, she says she was concerned that she would miss people in other departments that had fewer problems.
"When I got to Cox, I saw only one work group was having most of the injuries and I needed a way to reach other people," Fischer says. "Having a wellness program was a way to draw other people in," she says.
At about that time, she says, she read a book by Egoscue, called "Pain Free at Your PC."
"That's the one book that was pivotal for me," she says. The book helped her to see that the program could have applications for the workplace and gave her the language and the tools to apply the concepts to the job.
FITNESS IN ACTION
Cox has contracted with a PRO FIT clinic to run many of the company's wellness programs. The programs are designed to encourage employees to take care of themselves on and off the job.
"It's not so much what we do at work. It's what we don't do to take care of ourselves," Fischer says.
So, she has made sure that the company's 750 employees have easy, convenient, low-cost access to health, nutrition and exercise programs on-site and on company time. The company has installed ergonomic workstations and a safety incentive program. Cox also tests workers before they start their jobs to be sure that they are capable of performing the physical demands for the position in which they are being hired. In addition, all of the company's vehicles were systematically redesigned to make them more safe and efficient.
Fischer's efforts have not gone unnoticed by her co-workers at Cox.
"She brings a different style to the safety programs," says Delvin Diaz, the manager of technical training for the company. When she came to the company, says Diaz, she cut to the fundamentals and asked, "Well, what can we do to keep you healthy? What can we do to make you go home safely?"
It's not just the programs that she's initiated, however, but her personal style that has helped make her efforts a success.
"It's not her sitting in this little bubble making decisions," Diaz says. "I've worked for many safety people before, and they sit in their little cubby holes and they make their decisions for the department," he says.
Floyd says the field service department is probably Fischer's biggest customer and gives her credit for making sure that some of the wellness classes begin as early as 7 a.m. to accommodate the field service workers who usually start their shifts at 7:30 a.m.
Fischer's advice to other safety and risk managers is to find the largest cost drivers and put in place initiatives that would address these, while also creating a culture that emphasizes wellness and safety for everyone.
"One of the best things you can do is to offer some sort of stretching or strengthening program that is focused on injury prevention," she says.
She also recommends companies give incentives to employees to encourage them to work safely.
Fischer says the bottom-line improvements are good, but her greatest satisfaction comes from knowing that people are going home safe each night.
"On the one hand, safety is one of those things where you don't know the injury that you saved," Fischer says. She's just happy, though, "knowing the numbers came down and that you don't have people going out of their normal and customary job because they've had a life-changing injury doing it."
PATRICIA VOWINKELis a New Jersey-based writer.
January 1, 2006
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