The Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation shows local employers how to prevent injury and avoid big costs

Moving heavy armoires and awkward sofas is challenging enough for movers without them slipping on the ramp into the truck. But that's what was happening at Two Men and A Truck.

"Our biggest safety concern was the number of ramp-related injuries we were experiencing. The movers would slip and fall because the ramps would get slick from moisture buildup. They'd hurt their knees or ankles or have other injuries," says Kurt Baker, human resources manager.

Baker understands the importance of keeping employees safe through injury prevention. "We don't want anyone to get hurt," Baker says. "Medical costs vary widely, but preventing just one injury can easily save us $50,000 in lost time, lost productivity and lost revenue."

Looking for an answer, the local franchise applied for a safety grant from the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation. "We received $7,400 in 2011 to buy 15 new truck ramps that have a better grip. They have slots, so snow doesn't build up on them. The guys love them. It's an overall safer product, and we've had very, very few ramp-related accidents since we got them," Baker says.

That's exactly what Ibraheem "Abe" Al-Tarawneh wants to hear. BWC's superintendent of the Division of Safety and Hygiene says, "We have evidence after evidence to show CEOs that investments in safety pay off. The payback is there financially, in greater productivity and better work quality. But it all starts when the employer makes the decision to pay attention to safety."

From safety grants to on-site consultants to training programs, employers who participate in the state's workers' compensation system have an array of programs available to them. Funded through employers' premium payments, not additional fees, these services can make a big impact. BWC officials and local employers discuss the services and how they can improve your workplace and your bottom line.

BWC primer

With assets totaling approximately $28 billion, BWC is the largest state-fund insurance system in the country. Ohio is unique in that it does not have a competitive workers' compensation insurance market. "BWC is the sole issuer of workers' comp insurance. Companies must buy their insurance from the state," says Administrator and CEO Steve Buehrer.

The exception is self-insured businesses. "They account for the 1,200 largest companies in Ohio or 40 percent of the state's workforce. So the 60 percent we insure are the public sector, as well as small- to mid-size employers that cut across all industries," Buehrer says.

In 2003, Ohio had more than 200,000 new claims filed, but only 97,000 in 2013. "Ohio is part of a national trend that shows claims are dropping. It's a great trend, but can I draw an exact parallel with safety? No. Some of that is attributed to the recession and fewer people working. But some of it is because of greater awareness of safety," Buehrer says.

And, he adds, "With 97,000 new claims, we still have work to do."

Ohio employers pay layered workers' compensation rates.

"The state's overall rates are based on how the system is performing. When we collect premiums, we collect all of the premiums for all accidents that year and all of the payments needed to take care of those accidents. It's a long-tailed system, because we take on those expenses for a long period of time. We're still making payments for claims that occurred in the 1940s and 1950s," Buehrer says.

More specific factors are then added. "We take the base rate and look at the risk of different industries. How does that sector perform? We group similar employers together," Buehrer says. "At the individual employer level, we classify employees by duty. All of them have different rates based on their job risks."

BWC provides insurance to 254,000 Ohio employers and Buehrer is well aware that workers' comp premiums affect economic development.

"We take the approach of how do we at BWC make this a positive aspect of doing business in Ohio? If employers can see factually that our grants, educational opportunities and other resources drive business costs down and ultimately can reduce their BWC premiums, it lowers the overall cost of doing business here. All of that makes Ohio more successful economically," Buehrer says.

Consulting services

Every participating company is assigned to a BWC field service office and a safety consultant. "Some services are highly specialized, others less so. We evaluate hazards and risks, and provide solutions to reduce the risk of injury," Al-Tarawneh says.

Each year, BWC reaches about 5,000 employers with its direct one-to-one consulting services at the workplace.

"We conduct noise surveys and put together hearing protection programs for industrial employers. We assist with air quality sampling that measures the levels of chemicals employees are exposed to. If the samples exceed certain limits, we find ways to reduce it. Our ergonomics consultant helps businesses reduce risk factors associated with poor posture, repetition and force," Al-Tarawneh says.

Continental Building Systems has long relied on BWC's safety consultants.

"I see our bottom line as 'We're going to build safely or we're not going to build at all.' For more than 25 years, BWC's safety outreach has helped me recognize the human and financial value of safety and helped us to build our safety culture," says CEO Todd Alexander.

Continental Building Systems is the firstColumbus-based construction company to receive Star Status in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's stringent Voluntary Protection Program. "It took us two years to obtain that certification. It was our effort to raise the bar, yes, but going for that OSHA certification grew out of our BWC interactions," Alexander says.

As a general contractor, Continental Building Systems' approach to safety directly impacts numerous other firms. "We'll have 20 to 30 subcontractors on any construction job and they work under our safety rules. We try to elevate their knowledge and understanding of safety. We also have a stringent pre-qualifying process. Our safety director reviews each sub's safety information and record," Alexander says.

Education and training

BWC's Division of Safety & Hygiene sponsors 81 safety councils that usually are organized through chambers of commerce, trade and manufacturing associations or similar organizations.

"The councils bring the community and its local businesses together to increase safety awareness as a partnership. They present educational programs and share information. Employers and employees both learn some (strategies) to take back to their company," says Al-Tarawneh.

BWC's Training Center focuses on the practical application of safety principles, developing a safety culture, risk and current and proposed compliance standards.

"We have training sites at 11 locations across Ohio. The workshops cover more than 80 topics and are presented more than 400 times. More than 20,000 people have benefitted from the courses whether they've taken them in class or online," says Al-Tarawneh.

The Workplace Wellness Grant Program assists employers with establishing training and other programs that reduce health risk factors specific to their employees. It's studying the effect workplace wellness programs play in decreasing the incidence and costs associated with accidents and illnesses.

Safety intervention grants

BWC's safety grants assist employers with acquiring equipment to mitigate workplace hazards.

"Historically the safety grant program was only allocated $5 million. This biennium it was allocated $15 million. And to add to its usability, we upped it to $3 of BWC money for every $1 invested by the company," Buehrer says.

Two years after a company puts safety equipment into service, it's asked to report back to the BWC. "The data help BWC establish best practices and determine if the equipment was a good investment. Did the intervention actually reduce injuries and accidents? That's what we're looking for," Al-Tarawneh says.

In many cases, the answer is yes. "We're seeing an improvement in productivity and the quality of work where the grants have been implemented," Al-Tarawneh says. "Those employers who received a safety grant have a 66-percent reduction in their claim frequency rate after the solution is implemented. They also have an 81-percent drop in workers' comp cost per $1 million in payroll."

Previously, the maximum awarded in the safety grant program was $4 million. "Since the beginning of the state fiscal year on July 1, 2013, we've awarded $11 million. It's been fun to see what the companies are doing with the money," Buehrer says.

At Two Men and A Truck, the movers give the company a thumbs-up about those truck ramps. "We're buying them as we buy new trucks. They've boosted morale and safety consciousness," Baker says.

Because of its previous positive experience, Two Men and A Truck is considering applying for another safety grant. "We're looking at some sort of flood lights to light up the rear of the trucks. It will make working after dark easier and safer for our movers," Baker says. The timeframe for subsequent applications is based on a company's payroll scale.

Much like Continental Building Systems' influences its subcontractors, Baker says the impact of its safety grant reaches beyond its own front doors. "Two Men and A Truck has 200 franchises nationally and we're in the top two. We can help the smaller franchises learn from what we've done to improve safety with our BWC grant. It helps them, their workers and their customers, and makes us a stronger company," he says.

Lisa Hooker is a freelance writer.