Recognizing first-class risk management programs

At the 2023 WCI Educational Conference, three distinguished organizations were honored with the prestigious Workers’ Compensation Risk Management Award for Excellence, presented by NU Property & Casualty and WCI and sponsored by Sedgwick and Safety National. The awards recognize risk managers and employers whose safety, risk mitigation and return-to-work programs are success stories based on actual workplace results. What follows are more insights from this year’s three award-winning programs.

American Airlines

At the core of American Airline’s successful workers’ comp program is a deep appreciation and respect for its team members. The company’s operations are expansive, specialized and demanding, which requires that its workers’ compensation solutions be customizable to meet the needs of its workforce.

“Our number one priority is safety, and we make every attempt to prevent work-related accidents and injuries,” says Bryan Conner, manager of workers’ compensation at American Airlines. “However, when one of our team members becomes injured, our commitment to their well-being doesn’t waver. We value what they do, appreciate who they are and are committed to walking the workers’ compensation journey with them.”

From employee advocacy and 24/7 resource support to clinical consultations, the company’s robust program and advocacy model has helped significantly reduce medical claims and litigation, while helping keep 65% of injured team members on the job.

An example of the company’s evolving program is its revamped return-to-work program. The company now offers on-site specialists who work with front-line leaders to determine what work is available and then define a limited duty assignment that adheres to any medical restrictions.

In addition to supporting front-line goals, this arrangement keeps injured team members engaged with their colleagues while allowing the collection of full benefits and pay.

“Preference is given to value-based solutions that will advance the injured team member’s recovery or quality of life over low-cost, price-driven fixes,” Conner says. “This includes providing injured team members guidance and access to quality medical care, as well as timely information and resources that will allow them to focus on recovery and return to an active and productive lifestyle.”

The City of Beverly Hills

Since 2020, risk managers for the City of Beverly Hills have been tasked with guiding their employees through the unprecedented impacts of COVID-19 even beyond the deadly virus.

One new risk emerging from the pandemic is post-COVID-19 traumatic stress disorder, a syndrome that develops due to the significant strains of the pandemic.

Sharon L’Heureux Dressel, the risk manager for the City of Beverly Hills, California, realized early on that the city’s employees were likely to need access to services to help them cope. She says the city has a history of being mindful of behavioral and mental health issues and proactive about offering resources in these areas to employees.

The City of Beverly Hills employs about 1,200 people, including police and fire departments, which already had access to critical incident stress debriefing services. These services are provided to city employees who witness a catastrophic or traumatic event to help them process the situation and develop coping mechanisms so they can return to work as soon as possible.

“When we first started building mental health and behavioral health services, it was really just in anticipation of the likely need and a desire to support our employees,” Dressel says.

The expansion of mental health and wellness services has proved successful, resulting in reduced stress claims and lower costs for the city. Some of these positive trends are a result of the CISD program, which can help avoid the need for additional medical treatment such as medication, psychiatry and counseling.

Demonstrating the success of the program, verage claim frequency was down 16% in 2021 compared with 2020, and the average cost per claim came down 1% over the same time. In addition, the average cost per stress claim dropped 27% in 2021. Average medical costs for the city’s stress claims in 2020 averaged $8,593 compared to $4,714 in 2021.

Fairfax County, Virginia

When Randy F. Jouben came on board in December 2017 as chief of risk management for Virginia’s Fairfax County, he quickly observed that the county’s employees had a less-than-positive view of the worker’s compensation program.

“In town halls and other forums, employees and managers voiced their disappointment and concern that the county’s program was motivated by cost containment, not by a genuine interest in supporting injured workers,” Jouben says. “There were a lot of antiquated assumptions, and people just weren’t happy.”

To uncover the specifics behind the dissatisfaction with the county’s workers’ comp program, Jouben had claims manager Anthony Smith and Karen Morgan, a claims specialist, survey employees.

The result of the listening-and-learning tour was an updated workers’ comp program that would introduce enhanced recoveries, shorter return-to-work timelines and lower insurance costs. The update program featured a holistic four-part program comprising on-site wellness and prevention, custom medical panels, mental and behavioral health services and medication management.

“We started the on-site physical therapy service at the firefighter training academy for first responders who needed PT (physical therapy) or rehabilitative services,” Jouben explains. “To enhance their ability to work with first responders, the physical therapists got training to help them understand the challenges our firefighters face that go beyond standard PT needs.”

To gain buy-in for the on-site program, the risk management team worked with Gary Gize, Fairfax County’s return-to-work section program manager.

“As an experienced firefighter, he had a lot of credibility. He came from within the ranks and really supported what we wanted to do,” Jouben says. “He identified individuals who would benefit from the on-site program.”

Since the on-site PT program was implemented, Fairfax County’s indemnity claims have dropped significantly; there were 199 in 2020 but only 159 in 2022.

“These workers also found that the on-site center provided a convenient place to keep fit and to get help for aches and pains that might develop into more serious problems if left untreated,” Jouben points out.

Quote from Elana Ashanti Jefferson, editor-in-chief,

Running a successful workers’ comp risk management program takes creativity, resourcefulness and a great deal of compassion, traits each of this year’s winners have in abundance. My team and I are excited every year to learn more about the innovative workers’ comp programs from around the country and recognize the best among them with these awards.