Limited Liability: With a New Focus on Risk Management and Safety Efforts Rather Than Just Compliance, Campus Environmental Health & Safety Offices Are Preventing On-the-Job Injuries and Costly Workers' Compensation Claims

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

For years, Kevin Confetti would perform a metaphoric scratching of the head. Thousands of work-related injuries were reported at the University of California's 10 campuses and five medical centers, costing the system $25 million annually in workers' compensation claims. As a workers' compensation specialist for UC, he was responsible for payments to injured employees while they were off their feet.

"When you're on the claims side, you're constantly dealing with failure," says Confetti, who now directs the workers' compensation program for UC, which employs approximately 254,000 faculty and stalin. "If someone gets injured, something has failed. You can't help but think that if something was done differently, not as many people would get hurt."

At UC, approximately $420 million has been saved in claims over five years by spending $60 million to fund safety initiatives, such as its slip-resistant shoe program.

In the past decade, higher ed institutions across the country have been reaping the benefits of integrating risk managers like Confetti with their EH&S teams. They are using a two-fold strategy of preventing on-the-job injuries (by analyzing injury data to determine corrective measures) and monitoring injured employees to ensure they get back to work faster.

Bruce Backus, president of the College Safety Health and Environmental Management Association, says schools throughout the country are in different phases of implementing such money-saving safety programs, with the University of California, The University of Texas System, and Stanford University leading the way in innovation.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Recent lab accidents, including a fatal 2008 fire at the University of California-Los Angeles, as well as a hobbling economy, have catalyzed higher-education administrators to create more stringent safety programs.

Departmental Reorganization

Backus, who is also director of EH&S at Washington University in Saint Louis, says federal regulatory compliance demands much of his staff's time. When he started at the university in 1998, only two regulatory inspections needed to be conducted. By last year, the number of inspections had skyrocketed to 42. "That means every week, I or one of my people had to perform an inspection."

Compliance, however, doesn't save money the way safety initiatives do.

To best understand how it works, Erike Young, director of EH&S at the University of California Office of the President, offers the example of the fire extinguisher. The fine for not inspecting one is around $300, he says. In an office environment, the chances of a fire being set are pretty slim. Yet, a school can pay out $10,000 to a cafeteria worker who slips on a greasy floor. Of course, the cost of buying a pair of slip-resistant shoes to prevent injuries is $70.

"EH&S is so focused on compliance, we forget about the person with the back injury," Young says. Meanwhile, risk managers have a solid grip on who gets injured and how long they wind up on medical leave. Access to accurate injury data is key to linking the two departments.

At The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, the risk management program has attacked two areas--ergonomics and risk reduction--with a special emphasis on reducing retained losses to save additional money.

Robert Emery, who is vice president for Safety, Health, Environment and Risk Management at UTHealth, said a departmental re-organization occurred in 2003-04 to keep costs down. That's how risk management and employee health were transferred to Emery.

"It evolved naturally ... since we work so closely with those groups," Emery says. "The logic was let's put them all together and get them synchronized."

Emery recommends schools look at injury data for whole populations, including workers, students, and visitors on campus to discern safety risks. …