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Rising workers compensation costs put Pulaski County on 'watch list'
PULASKI COUNTY, Mo. (March 5, 2009) — After facing significantly higher than expected workers compensation claims, Bob Holthaus from the Missouri Association of Counties spoke to Pulaski County commissioners Thursday and gave suggestions on ways to control costs.

Holthouse said the Missouri Association of Counties formed a self-insured pool and began offering worker’s compensation insurance in the mid-1980s because counties couldn’t get good insurance rates. While rates are lower than what might be expected commercially, Holthaus said Pulaski County’s high claims rate led to an “experience modification” of 1.21, placed the county on a “watch list,” and triggered his visit.

“When you are at 1.21 that means you are 21 percent worse than the rest of the industry. Your premium will be directly modified by that amount,” Holthaus said.

Counties with an experience modification factor over 1.15 are scheduled for more careful review, he said, but experience modifications don’t have to be negative.

“Some of the entities that are doing very well got up to a 50 percent discount on their premiums,” Holthaus said. “When I came before I made some recommendations and I’m going to make some recommendations today. Try to benchmark where you are on these recommendations.”

Holthaus said during all the years that Pulaski County has been in the Missouri Association of Counties self-insured workers’ compensation pool, the county paid $1.163 million in premiums and had claims of $872,000. With a 25 percent charge for administrative costs, that means the insurance pool actually lost money serving Pulaski County.

“That means in total since you’ve been in the fund we’re basically in the hole by 19 percent. We’re not crying about that; we understand we are in the business of insurance,” Holthaus said.

Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall asked Holthaus what the Missouri Association of Counties does with its premium payment. Holthaus said the premiums are placed in “very conservative investments.”

A key way to control costs, Holthaus said, is for counties to place a renewed emphasis on safety and loss prevention; another key factor, he said, is documenting the details of any incident that’s likely to result in a workers’ compensation claim.

“It’s important to get names and phone numbers of witnesses when an incident does happen,” Holthaus said. “As soon as that incident happened, things start to change. If we can get a good documentation of what happened, it helps in the defense of that claim. It also helps for safety committees to understand what happened.”

Ransdall asked for details of how a safety committee would work, noting that 90 percent of the workers’ compensation claims in recent years have come from the sheriff’s department and 10 percent from the road and bridge department. Injuries by office workers or courthouse personnel rarely result in a claim, Ransdall said, since the county absorbs the first $5,000 of the cost of any injury and few injuries by office workers reach that level since they usually don’t perform risky jobs or use heavy equipment.

“My question is, road and bridge should have a safety committee and the sheriff should have a safety committee?” Ransdall asked.

Holthaus said at least two safety committees should be formed since the hazards faced by road and bridge crews are much different than those faced by sheriff’s deputies and jailers, but he said a third safety committee for the office workers could also help.

“Most of the claims don’t come out of the office area, but you need to focus your attention where the majority of the claims are,” Holthaus said. “It isn’t that the sheriff’s people or the road and bridge people are careless, it’s just the nature of the work in those areas.”

Claims in those two departments can be and in some counties have been catastrophic, he said.

“The highest claim we’ve ever had was a road and bridge employee, 18 years old,” Holthaus said.

That case involved a dump truck driver who was not wearing his seat belt, rolled his dump truck, and was partially ejected but not killed, Holthaus said.

“He’ll probably never be able to get out of bed hardly; even after a couple of years he can hardly talk,” Holthaus said. “Prior to that the highest claim we’ve ever had was a deputy who lost control, went down a ravine, didn’t have his seat belt on and was rendered a paraplegic for life.”

Ransdall asked what Holthaus recommended that the counties do to improve safety.

“What policy do you have on seat belts? If they don’t wear them, do you fire them?” Ransdall said.

Sheriff J.B. King said he already disciplines employees for failure to wear seat belts; Holthaus said some counties have a policy of terminating employees on the first time they fail to wear their seat belts.

County Commissioner Ricky Zweerink said mechanical safeguards are built into modern heavy equipment purchased by Pulaski County for the road and bridge department.

“These new vehicles, the backhoes and graders, they won’t even run unless you snap the seat belt on,” Zweerink said.

Holthaus said it’s also important to make sure employees who drive vehicles keep items in their proper place so they don’t become projectiles in a crash.

“We’ve had cases where sheriff’s people were decapitated because there were objects not secured in the vehicle,” Holthaus said. “If you get into a vehicle and everybody is not buckled up, insist that they buckle up, because their carcass could cause severe damage to other people in the vehicle.”

Holthaus said counties are also allowed to terminate employees who are found to be using drugs or alcohol while operating county equipment, provided that is specified in the county policy handbook.

“I would certainly hope that any employee who is on drugs or alcohol would realize that they would be fired immediately,” said Commissioner Bill Farnham.

In other recommendations, Holthaus suggested that based on the county’s claim history, each department should look at ergonomics to avoid repetitive strain injuries, and the sheriff’s department should get upgraded vests and LED lights on the patrol cars. King said all that had already been done in his department.

In other business, Farnham reported that he’s had major problems with a company that was supposed to deliver a spreader for sand, salt and gravel to be used during snow conditions. The company didn’t deliver it on time and then delivered the wrong equipment.

The county had ordered a stainless steel snow spreader which won’t rust as badly as a carbon steel spreader will rust; it was due to arrived by the first day of January but it hadn’t yet arrived by the end of January.

“Two weeks ago got the spreader in, but it’s the wrong spreader. They offered to sell it at $2,000 discount on an original price quote of more than $8000,” Farnham said. “We don’t want that because these will rust out in just a couple of years.”

Farnham told commissioners that he preferred to simply cancel the order since winter is nearly over and order the correct spreader from a different company.

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