By Dave Kittross
Five years after winning kudos for its workers' compensation program, the U.S. Army's Red River Army Depot in northeast Texas has been selected as a winner of cyberFEDS®' annual Federal Theodore Roosevelt Workers' Compensation and Disability Management award for its successful workers' compensation program.
The sprawling complex is where the Army overhauls and remanufactures complex, expensive combat systems and tactical vehicles.
"You want to take care of people and do the right thing, and we have an obligation to take care of these people," said Jim Shull, the depot's chief of staff. "So we ask what can we do to help that person while still looking to meet the goals of the Army and Department of Defense," to make the system more efficient and reduce costs.
Since 2007, Red River Army Depot has employed more than 3,000 workers with an injury rate of less than 1 percent, and has reduced accidents by 70 percent.
One of the reasons why success at Red River is so significant is the variety of jobs performed there. Ann Harmon, the injury compensation program administrator, said she believes many of the strategies used at Red River, which have saved millions of dollars in workers' compensation costs, could be adopted by installations and other facilities all over the country.
The overhaul of the workers' compensation system dates back to 2007, when officials created a federal employees' compensation working group. Harmon praised the group -- which includes an injury compensation program administrator, medical support and safety officers, a workers' compensation investigator and a legal adviser -- as a "strong team" that has helped the depot cut costs and improve efficiency over the past five years.
The group meets quarterly, and its responsibilities entail helping return injured employees to productive employment, prioritizing cases to be referred for investigation, looking into questionable injuries and occupational illness claims, and implementing accident prevention initiatives.
Since the working group was established, the depot has been able to reduce the periodic rolls by more than 90 percent, saving more than $40 million. Over the last four years, Red River was able to return 100 percent of injured workers to the workforce, and workers' comp costs have decreased 34 percent. The overall lost case time over the same period has fallen by 74 percent.
Oversight of the working group is shared between Harmon and the installation commander, and managed by the director of the Civilian Personnel Advisory Center, who has final authority to approve or reject proposed changes to positions and recommendations.
Shull said the group "looks at every case as unique," and can bring aboard experts in a particular field if more expertise in that area is needed.
THE ROLE OF LIGHT DUTY
Harmon and Shull agreed that one of the reasons for their program's success is the emphasis on return-to-work, including a "light duty initiative" that has cut lost days by more than 50 percent by modifying or creating permanent light-duty positions for claimants who are able to work with restrictions.
If an employee is deemed unable to work by a physician, Harmon contacts the physician's office and faxes a copy of the light-duty letter, which explains that the agency has light-duty work during the injured worker's incapacitation period. She also faxes a copy of a light-duty job description.
"Early into this process, our agency learned that physicians within our area were not returning injured workers because they did not realize that we were not just a maintenance facility, but had the capability of offering a variety of light-duty work," Harmon said.
This step has saved Red River thousands of dollars, because "[we can] accommodate employees with work restrictions, instead of the employee being placed on the workers' compensation rolls," said Harmon.
Red River staff also talked to local physicians, making them aware of light-duty positions. So now, when employees are injured at work, 98 percent of the local physicians are more likely to return them to employment, she said.
One thing that makes Red River's program unique, said Harmon, is that, instead of re-engineering the employee's position description to accommodate work restrictions, an administrative support specialist position description that requires no physical demands is used. This enables the depot to "make the return-to-work process a flow process [with] every item in place prior to making the job offer," she said.
Shull also noted that returning employees can obtain training in their new positions, as a way to make the transition to light duty easier.
According to Harmon, light duty and other return-to-work initiatives have not only resulted in more employees coming back to work, but have streamlined the workers' compensation process, leading to a quicker return-to-work rate.
Real improvement required a culture change, and the success of culture change is due largely to support from top leadership, said Shull, who emphasized that the changes have been backed by the military and civilian leaders at the base. "Don't assume that everything can be done by one person," he said. "Every leader in the facility needs to get behind the program."
Shull admitted that changing the mind-set of supervisors to accept light-duty employees wasn't easy, because most want workers who are "capable of doing everything." But, by emphasizing the potential cost savings of the changes, and working with managers and supervisors to help them understand how the revised system works, managers have bought into the changes. There are now even waiting lists of supervisors asking that light-duty employees returning to work be assigned to them.
Quarterly training is provided to supervisors on the basics of the workers' comp program, as well as how to address injury trends and help bring employees back to work. Employees who are being groomed for leadership positions also receive the training. "If you can get a good plan, and get leadership behind it, change will happen," said Shull.
Of course, the best way to reduce workers' comp costs is to prevent injuries from occurring in the first place. Some of the strategies used by Red River include daily "start of work" meetings to discuss any health, safety or environmental issues. Managers also review the quality, the schedules and the potentially dangerous equipment in each work center.
Another strategy is hazard-identification training through a variety of different approaches, including contests in which work centers compete for the ability to find and correct possible work hazards.
Speed is another key to the program's success. Red River's system captures within 24 hours all reports of initial injury or illness. Upon notification of an injury, a supervisor inputs injury data into INTELLEX, an automated injury-management system. This records the date of injury, the name of the employee injured, the nature of the illness, where the injury occurred and what preventive measures the supervisor will take in order to prevent the same injury from occurring in the future. After the supervisor completes the report, it is sent to all stakeholders via email for follow-up action.
Harmon said the program's success also depends on maximizing use of the Department of Defense Pipeline Program, an initiative that gives DOD organizations the authority to re-employ partially recovered employees suffering from job-related illnesses. The Pipeline Program is designed to support requirements under the Protect Our Workers and Ensure Re-employment Initiative.
One of the program's unique elements provides the commander with the authority to authorize pre-approved job slots that can be used by the workers' compensation office to place injured workers in positions until they can acquire full-duty work releases. Without the authority, it could take months for a space to be approved, but this capability enables management to make a job offer to an injured worker more quickly.
Red River has made additional improvements since 2007, and the program's ability to address workplace changes is one of its strengths, said Harmon and Shull. For example, the depot's most common category of workers' compensation claims is hearing loss. To address the problem, Red River is adopting a comprehensive Noise Hazard Identification program that looks at the problem from all angles, including keeping up-to-date on developments in personal protective equipment, health education, noise monitoring and enforcement of noise limitations.
Progress is something "you have to work on, and you don't accomplish it in one year, two years or even three years. It's a climate, a culture and a reorganization you have to constantly work on," said Shull.
DAVID KITTROSS is a writer with cyberFEDS®
in the publication's Washington, D.C., bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com.
November 1, 2012
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