By MELISSA TURLEY, a writer in the Washington bureau of cyberFEDS®
newsletter, a publication from our parent company LRP Publications
When people think of the Treasury Department, they think of Internal Revenue Service agents auditing and collecting taxes.
But this Cabinet-level agency also makes the money--literally. It shelters warehouses, laboratories and machines that include large printing presses. So, on-the-job illnesses and injuries are a real possibility, right? Not necessarily. The Treasury's workers' compensation and safety programs make harmful accidents less likely, earning the agency this year's Federal workplace Theodore Roosevelt Workers' Compensation and Disability Management Award.
Stephen Wallace, Treasury's director of environment, safety and health division, says it's important to look beyond everyday tasks to the mission of the programs at hand.
"You really have to value getting people back to work, not just processing a claim," he says. "The keys we have used here to decrease injuries and illnesses were through a series of management commitments, identification and removal of hazards, and employee participation."
Treasury has experienced a steady decline in the rate of injuries and illnesses. Since 2003, the agency saw this number decrease 66 percent to about 1,500 in 2007. A lot of the agency's success is a result of setting aggressive goals, Wallace says. Under the Department of Labor's Safety, Health and Return to Work Initiative, the goal to reduce injuries and illnesses is 3 percent annually. But Treasury decided to double that goal for injuries, including those that resulted in lost time.
"Prevention is key," Wallace says. "It's important to analyze where injuries are happening, why they're happening and remove any hazards you have. You have to make the workplace inherently safer if possible."
In order to get input and buy-in from all levels of the organization, a commitment to safety and health must be part of the agency's strategic plan. Treasury's plan says "promoting safety, health and environmental protection for the workforce is one of the key means to achieving the goal of strengthening workforce management to ensure commitment to excellence."
This required communicating health and safety information to the workforce; conducting site assessments and behavioral operations evaluations; and developing programs to reduce illnesses and injuries.
Through a series of directives, Treasury laid out its objectives. Officials also made it clear that bureau leaders are expected to establish safety programs, cascade management's commitment to all levels, provide sufficient safety staff and resources, and evaluate supervisors and managers on their performance in meeting safety and health program requirements.
To get employees on board, Treasury gave them a say in how they should be protected from hazards. The Bureau of Engraving and Printing has a participation program to encourage employees to design equipment to hazards. One employee, for example, designed a dolly to assist in wiping a currency press blade to minimize back strain on workers. The blade assembly weighs 40 pounds, and employees have to bend and reach to use it. But the dolly allows for better posture and precludes uncomfortable twisting and body positioning.
"Employees know the job better than anyone else, so they know what can be done," Wallace says.
The decline in injuries is also attributable to technology and a change in how work is done, particularly at the IRS, a division within the Treasury. Automation and e-filing removed the need for employees to push large volumes of paper around.
What's more, the IRS has taken a forceful approach to updating workstations with ergonomic designs that include modular furniture and adaptive equipment. Currently, Treasury estimates that 54 percent of workstations meet ergonomic standards, but the goal is to increase that number by four to five percent each year.
Automation has also helped improve the timely filing of claims. The creation of a centralized electronic system also eliminated paper and enabled employees and their supervisors to file their claims electronically through the agency's Safety and Health Information Management System. "One of the biggest lessons learned is that if you have a centralized electronic system, it makes it easier to process claims, because it systemizes it," Wallace says.
Health care costs aren't going down anytime soon, making it all the more imperative for agencies to return employees to light duty wherever possible.
The Treasury understands that return to work makes economic sense. But it also understands the benefit to the recovering employee--a potential for healing through productivity. Since 2004, the Treasury agency with the most workers' claims, the IRS, brought 98 percent of its 31,000 injured employees back on the job.
"It really has to be a value to keep people healthy and safe," says Wallace "And if there is an injury, to get them back to work as soon as possible in any kind of capacity they can safely perform."
Treasury's return-to-work focus also helped reduce lost production time due to injury. The agency experienced a decrease from about 36 days per claim in 2003 to about 29 days in 2007. On average, the government experiences a loss of about 46 days per claim.
The agency's success is, in part, attributable to a centralized claims management system that allows the agency to find suitable employment at other agency locations. Workers' comp collaborates with human resources to see where other openings exist.
"Geographically, we have the ability to look broader than one specific office where the employee works. The more potential opportunity you have, the more freedom you have," Wallace says.
He also noted human resources and line managers need to be open to less traditional forms of employment, such as telework, or telecommuting.
"It's good to be creative in getting people back to work," he says. If an employee can't make it into work any more but there's work he can do at home, then (telework) is a possibility, depending on the job, of course."
Sometimes agencies take the biggest hit in the wallet from the long-term rolls, one of the "ubiquitous problems of government," Wallace says.
His colleague Bob Greene, a workers' comp program analyst, agrees. He notes that while some cases may be a "lost cause" because there is little chance the employees will ever come back to work, the agency cannot afford to be negligent in managing these claims. After all, the employee is entitled to come back if she can work again. Greene recalled one instance where a 70-year-old Treasury employee came back to work after being out on workers' comp for 20 or 30 years.
"When employees are removed from active employment rolls and administration rolls, it's like they don't' exist anymore in the minds of supervisors," Greene says. "But you need to keep following up on cases, because there's always the chance the employee can come back in some way. So we must have the medical documentation that indicates their restrictions."
In some cases where the employee is not totally disabled and hits retirement age without applying for disability retirement, he may be eligible to return to work. At that point, his "compensation stops and it's too late to do retirement," Greene says. "Some employees stay on compensation retirement to preserve themselves because if they ever become fully recovered and are off workers' comp, they have nothing to go back on."
So what does the future hold for Treasury's workers' comp program? A more refined approach to customer service, for one. "We want case managers to be in contact with the claimant and supervisor at fixed intervals," Wallace says.
This means additional quality reviews of sample cases and for the case manager to make the appropriate contacts at certain frequencies.
The idea is for the workers' comp division to make contact within a day or two of the claim being awarded. After the Office of Workers' Compensation Programs assigns a number, the agency will then inquire more information from the claimant. The agency should continue to follow up at established intervals through phone, e-mail or in person if necessary.
"One of the things we're hearing is, 'No one is contacting me,' " Greene says. "So we need to start taking measures where we're to the point where minimum contact has been made and then watching customer service survey results to see if [the increased contact] is helping customer satisfaction."
(Check out the profiles of the other Teddy Award winners.)
November 1, 2008
Copyright 2008© LRP Publications