By ERIN GAZICA, a freelance writer living in Pennsylvania
An economic recession can present new obstacles for a company's workers' compensation program, particularly when it comes to coaxing injured workers back to work. Vocational rehabilitation is increasingly challenging when corporate downsizing shrinks the number of available positions. Cost of claims and settlements escalate when there is no job to return to.
Trucking giant Schneider National Inc., based in Green Bay, Wis., has been feeling the pinch of this problem, especially when it comes to injured truck drivers who can no longer sit behind the wheel of a big rig. These employees often have limited work experience and skill sets.
Schneider National may not be posting big savings--who is right now?--but the company has made a difference in the lives of some employees by using a little bit of creativity to get injured drivers back to work.
That's just one reason why Schneider National is this year's recipient of a certificate of merit in the Annual Theodore Roosevelt Workers' Comp and Disability Award for-profit category.
"Vocational rehabilitation is a costly process, so if we can retain our associates within our environment, that's a big advantage," said Mike Flanagan, the workers' comp claims manager for Schneider.
Flanagan recalls the case of one driver injured on the job who was permanently barred from getting behind the wheel. The driver had limited job skills prior to joining Schneider National and was assigned light duty that involved some computer work. By the time his assignment ended, he had become much more proficient with a computer.
"There was a position opening that required some basic computer skills, and because of the time he spent developing his skills through the course of his light-duty work, he was a successful candidate and was brought in-house in a permanent position," Flanagan said.
Return-to-work isn't the only area where Schneider National has made strides. The company historically has had spotty success with injury and claims figures. But from 2004 to 2008, Schneider National gained 3,004 employees yet the number of injuries dropped from 1,244 to 983. The cost per claim also improved some from $16,758 to $16,281.
Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety, said the current economic environment has actually increased the company's vigilance with safety.
"We're very proud of our safety performance," said Osterberg. "Now, having said that, while we've seen significant improvement, arguably discontinuous or breakthrough improvement, we recognize that our job is never done. This is a challenge with no finish line."
Two years ago, Schneider National began a phased implementation to restructure the organization to a line-of-business-centric approach, creating general managers of subsegments of its business. These new general managers, with full profit and loss accountability, realized safety's role during a time of financial pressure, Osterberg said.
In the course of restructuring the organization and redefining how the costs of injuries and crashes were reported, general managers found that in addition to a moral obligation to operate safely, Schneider National could profit financially by improving safety. Osterberg called this restructuring a "catalyst event" to help hammer home the importance of the company's long-held culture of safety.
"We have not reduced the head-count or resources to support our safety program. We have simply chosen not to do that even in this economic recession," said Osterberg.
For example, the company decided to begin retrofitting its fleet with a new in-cab mobile technology to enable electronic logging, straight-level communications to the driver in a voice-to-text format, video-based training and more. Osterberg said the fact that Schneider National took on such a costly initiative in this economic climate proves its dedication to enhancing safety.
Other initiatives that Schneider National has incorporated into its safety program include a pilot program for installing Green Road technology in 200 vehicles to help identify aggressive drivers preemptively. (Green Road is a winner of a 2009 Risk & Insurance® Risk Innovator award.) Schneider National has also begun phasing in the installation of automated transmissions in its fleet to help reduce distractions and prevent injuries related to shifting, which requires a driver to exert 75 pounds of pressure 400 to 500 times a day.
Also, with the help of an Atlas Ergonomics program in 2005, Schneider National decreased driver discomfort by more than 75 percent. Drivers reported a significant impact on job satisfaction, productivity, reducing fatigue and improving their ability to drive safely. The effort resulted in a 16 percent reduction in direct workers' comp costs to Schneider National and 176 fewer lost workday cases.
Osterberg, who assumed accountability for safety in 2003, has recently taken on another approach to safety that some in the trucking industry see as being controversial.
THE SLEEP APNEA CONNECTION
It's no surprise that Schneider National found that about 30 percent of its high-severity crashes have driver fatigue as either a primary or contributing causal factor. Upon a recommendation from an in-house occupational health nurse, Osterberg said the company began looking into the likelihood that its drivers suffered from some type of sleep disorder, particularly obstructive sleep apnea.
In 2007, Schneider National entered the names of 11,000 drivers into a screening tool to identify those at risk for a sleep disorder and found 600 drivers who later underwent sleep studies and were diagnosed with sleep apnea. The company covers the entire cost of sleep studies, as well as the cost of a continuous positive airway pressure machine if it is prescribed. Schneider also monitors the driver's compliance with the treatment.
"What we found was that drivers who have been treated for sleep apnea are more productive, they are safer, they stay with us longer, and overall it's proven to be a very positive initiative for us," said Osterberg.
Osterberg said Schneider National sped out in front of this issue despite not having a road map to follow, and he believes the company has developed a model for the rest of the industry that regulators and policymakers are taking note of as well.
"There are some carriers now that are beginning to move down this path, but many aren't," he said. "It's a thorny issue, but I believe that long-term sustainable success for our industry involves educating DOT medical examiners to make sure they understand the risks of sleep disorders among commercial drivers, and where appropriate they should require the driver take a sleep study and not leave it to the motor carrier to have to identify that."
Awareness about the prevalence of sleep disorders among commercial truck drivers is slowly gaining traction, and government initiatives on the subject are under way.
As chairman for the Safety Policy Committee of the American Trucking Association, Osterberg has met frequently with legislators to identify areas where the DOT and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration can improve public safety.
Osterberg said there are a lot of laggards out there who wait for the DOT to develop a rule and then are quick to criticize it. "I say spin that energy to engage and help them shape that rule so that you don't have to criticize it, but you can endorse it and implement it with a 'want-to' as opposed to 'have-to' attitude."
A more collaborative environment between the motor carriers and regulators is upon us, according to Osterberg, and he is also encouraged by the sharing of best practices among motor carriers. "A lot of very good programs have emerged through the collective wisdom of safety professionals in this industry, and I'm very proud that we've chosen not to compete, but to collaborate, when it comes to safety," he said.
November 1, 2009
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