Washington State is one of the four states in the U.S. that has a state run workers compensation program, Washington State Labor and Industries (L&I). It has come under pressure in the last few years as private insurers and giant companies in the state pump money into efforts to privatize the system. Now, some disturbing statistics have come out that may help their effort.

According to an investigation conducted by KEPR TV in Tri-Cities, Washington State had the most work-related injuries last year out of any state in the country. Their investigation revealed that 52 people died in a work related incident last year, nearly twice the national average.

This statistic also includes thousands of workers who were personally injured in various accidents from everything ranging from falls to chemical burns. The investigators confirm that many of the accidents occurred in Eastern Washington at jobs involving manual labor.

But, why are these happening and what are state regulators doing about it?

Why Is This Happening?

This is where it gets a little complicated. The reason why there is so much pressure on the L&I over privatization is over the fact that rates for workers compensation has been steadily rising for employers since 2007 as state revenue has begun to dwindle and a mounting number of employers default on their premiums.

In fact, 2012 is the first year that the agency has confirmed that there will be no increases in what employers pay for workers compensation. This suggests that they have finally covered shortfalls in the funding, however, those who work closely with injured workers and workplace safety advocates suggest that this has perhaps come at the cost of employee safety.

Cuts in the number of inspectors has been deep and some suggest that this has caused workplace safety standards to falter. You see, the national standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are generally enforced by OSHA inspectors. Washington is an exception to this, as L&I sends out their own inspectors to sites such as the Tesoro plant explosion that claimed 7 workers.

These kinds of incidents are well publicized and garner a huge reaction, but thousands of injuries at construction sites and farms around the state remain barely investigated. In some cases, when the injury involves an immigrant, they will go unreported.

What Is Being Done?

Unfortunately, the problem with low resources means that much of what is done is reactionary instead of proactive, so many of the new rules implemented by L&I come after the fact. Some of the new rules this year involve:

  • Rules regulating the safety of cranes.
  • Rules surrounding handling of hazardous material.
  • Rules regarding training in hospitals and pharmacies specifically if working with chemotherapy drugs.

Aside from hiring new inspectors, L&I has decided to focus its resources on enforcing dead-beat employers and the care workers receive in order to get worker back to work faster. Thus, this pumps more money into the organization and costs them less in output rather than addressing the problem at the source. However, these policies have resulted in a promising project known as L&I’s Centers of Occupational Health and Education (COHE). COHEs are community-based organizations that work with medical providers to encourage the best ways to treat injured workers.

This whole program sprouted out of research published in the December 2011 issue of the American Public Health Association journal. Dr. Gary Franklin, medical director for the L&I), was one of the researchers involved in the study; Dr Thomas Wickizer, Ohio State University, College of Public Health, was the lead investigator.

L&I teamed up with physicians in Washington and throughout the country, health care researchers at the University of Washington, as well as business and labor leaders to find the “best practices” of helping workers in the first 12 weeks after a work-related injury.

These “best practices” focus on the safe, healthy return of injured workers to full function and full employment. Examples of best practices include:

  • Promptly filing the workers’ compensation claim.
  • Phoning the employer to talk about the worker’s ability to return to work or a light-duty job.
  • Regularly assessing a worker’s ability to do work activities.

The study found that when injured workers are treated using COHE best practices, they had 19.7% fewer disability days than other injured workers receiving treatment, and a reduction in total disability and medical costs of $510 per claim. Workers suffering from back strain had a reduction in disability days of 29.5%.

“We’re especially encouraged that the outcomes for workers with low-back strain were significantly better,” said Dr. Franklin. “Lower-back strain is a costly and common disabling condition in workers’ compensation.”

Currently, four COHE sites serve 2,000 providers and hundreds of employers, treating about one-third of injured workers in Washington. The findings of the study led to new legislation 2011 that will expand access to COHEs to all injured workers in the state by 2015.

Washington Workers Compensation Lawyers

It is clear that the efforts of L&I is successfully bringing in money and turning around some forecasting oversights. However, the new statistics are disheartening. Workplace safety is our priority, but that doesn’t specifically mean that privatization is the answer. L&I has proven to be a very effective and sustainable organization with a good safety enforcement track record in the past. It is only with renewed dedication by legislators that Washington State can have a fully functional public worker’s compensation system.

Phillips Law Firm has a team of legal professionals dedicated to seeking just compensation for workers injured on the job. Our workers compensation attorneys will look at your case for free and give you options on what you need to do to move forward. Call Phillips Law Firm now for a free consultation.