City [of Columbia] workers’ comp claims down

City workers are being injured less frequently and severely than in previous years, according to the city’s Risk Management division.

The annual number and average cost of workers’ compensation claims for city employees decreased in 2017, which continued a downward trend since 2014, according to Risk Management’s 2017 annual report. In 2017, the city paid out $722,855 after 146 claims for workers compensation — nearly one-third of the $2,027,416 paid in 2014 after 265 claims.

Those numbers equate to average claim costs of $7,651 in 2014 and $4,951 in 2017. In 2016, the city paid out 150 claims, which cost an average of $5,694. In 2015, the city paid 153 claims at an average cost of $6,459.

Risk Manager Sarah Perry said that while it is nice to see a decline in the number of claims over the years, she does not know if there is any single explanation for the decrease. The employees in Risk Management conduct and coordinate safety training throughout city departments, which Perry said might contribute to a safer work environment. According to the report, more than 1,300 employees attended risk management training in 2017 on the following topics: how to use personal protective equipment, severe weather safety, distracted driving and driver safety, and sprain and strain prevention.

“In my experience here at the city, we’ve seen the numbers and severity fluctuate,” Perry wrote in an email. “Though I really like it when we see a decreasing trend.”

According to the annual report, the city is self-insured for the first $500,000 or $750,000 of loss for employees, depending on whether their jobs are high-risk or not. Additional insurance the city buys covers claims exceeding the amount retained, the report states.

City leaders in recent years have called for additional, and better, worker training after the costly workers compensation claims in 2014 became a driving force behind a city effort to switch trash pick-up service from black bags to plastic, rolling carts. Unimpressed with the city plan to switch collection to a “roll carts” system, voters in March 2016 approved a law which bars the city from imposing the carts on its solid waste customers.

Like Perry, city spokesman Steve Sapp said he was not sure if reduced claims in the solid waste division could be attributed to better training. He said some of the other problems city employees previously identified with the utility, such as high turnover rates for employees, are still an issue. The solid waste utility is using more temporary employees to compensate for the high turnover, he said.

Solid Waste Manager Steve Hunt also said he is not sure why the number of claims are down for this past year. He noted there were still several significant injuries among the utility’s staff in 2017.

According to annual city financial reports, the solid waste utility — and utilities in general — still lead among city departments for number and cost of claims. Upper and lower extremity injuries accounted for the majority of claims — 92 of the 146 claims in 2017 — and more than one-quarter of claims were for sprains or strains, according to the report.

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