By Monica Chapman
On any given day, eight to 10 Ohio University employees are absent from work because of an injury sustained on the job. In a year's time, that adds up to untold hardships for staff and millions of dollars in university expenses.
Environmental Health and Safety Director Joe Adams has a plan to reduce such injuries through a workplace safety initiative designed to put safety in the spotlight as a top university priority. The effort is aimed at reducing workers' compensation claims, medical expenses and lost time.
"We've spent $5.5 million (on injury-related expenses) over the past three years. Our goal is to reduce that down to zero; that's always our goal," Adams said. "But realistically, if we could reduce that to less than $1 million a year, we would be very happy."
Adams believes these numbers are possible with the implementation over the next year of 11 key strategies for improving workplace safety. Among items on the list: safety training for all employees and supervisors, a new incident reporting system, a shop/work rules program and a return-to-work plan.
"It's primarily a matter of awareness," Adams said. "If we make everyone aware of the safety policies and procedures, I really believe that we can make these numbers."
Since January, 73 workers' compensation claims have been reported, putting the university on track to exceed its average of 200 claims per year.
Even more startling: This past year, Ohio University ranked worst in claims among members of a 14-university insurance consortium to which it belongs. Adams said the university consistently has ranked in the bottom third of that group, in large part because of a high number of workers' compensation claims and associated costs.
Adams, who is leading the workplace safety initiative with the assistance of Occupational Safety Coordinator Jeff Campbell, said the decision to implement the program was mainly financial.
"We can't afford to spend $5.5 million every three years on workplace injuries. This is real money. This comes from the bottom line," he said. "There are lots of better ways that we could spend $5.5 million."
Adams said money will be redirected within EHS to fund the program, with no additional cost to the university.
Because of the number of employees and the nature of their work, Dining Services, Facilities and Housing staff experience the lion's share of injuries on the job, Adams said. EHS often uses these departments to test new programs.
After tendonitis put Boyd Dining Hall cook Christine Davis out of work in mid-June, she helped pilot the university's return-to-work program, an optional offering that may become mandatory in the future. Instead of taking workers' compensation, Davis accepted a temporary position in the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
"I'm glad that they had this program to keep me working," said Davis, a single mom who worried that her injury might prevent her from making ends meet. But Davis found that the program's benefits extended well beyond financial peace-of-mind.
"It has been an extremely positive experience for me. It has boosted my confidence, and it has me thinking about returning to school," Davis said. "I was very nervous when I started (my job with EHS). I thought, 'I can't do this.' But after a couple days, I thought, 'Maybe I can.' I had banked on being in the dining halls until my girls were able to go to college. But now I'm thinking I could do more."
Dining Services also piloted a new shop/work rules program. With Campbell's assistance, Baker Center's dining staff created a 10-point safety program, drawing on employee input to compile a list of safe work practices unique to that operation. The initiative since has been extended to all Ohio University dining halls.
"We have really seen a change in our operations. It has created a higher level of awareness for safety," said Christine Sheets, assistant vice president for auxiliary services. "Safety comes first, and that's what we've tried to emphasize with our employees."
According to Adams, the 10-point program will serve as a model for shop/work rules in other departments as the workplace safety initiative gets under way.
"With over 4,000 employees every day engaged in a wide variety of tasks, we must ensure that safety is an integral part of those daily activities," Adams said, stressing the need for everyone at Ohio University to make safe work practices their business. "Safety must become a way of life."