Q&A: MEMIC Safety Expert on Growth of Ergonomics, Workers’ Comp

By | February 28, 2017

Karl Siegfried, Senior Vice President of Loss Control & Safety Services at Portland, Maine-headquartered MEMIC Group recently spoke with Insurance Journal about the safety management team that is in place at MEMIC and the ways in which it seeks to benefit agents, brokers and customers through safety management training services and advice for best safety practices.

Siegfried heads a team of 40 professionals that service policy holders across the country at MEMIC. He explained that the role of MEMIC’s safety management team is to provide consultative safety services to policy holders and assist in their injury prevention efforts.

He added that it is important for businesses to maintain a proactive approach to injury prevention and develop a plan for combatting the effects of an aging workforce. During this podcast, Siegfried also spoke about some of the biggest trends in workplace ergonomics, the evolving role of workers’ compensation, particularly as it relates to the ongoing opioid crisis that has hit the Northeast especially hard, and how he sees the typical office environment transforming in the future.

Insurance Journal: Can you start off by discussing the strategy carried out by the safety management team at MEMIC?

Good ergonomics makes good sense all the way around.

Karl Siegfried: Prior to writing new policy owners, the safety management consultant visits with the perspective customer. That meeting has a number of objectives, including establishing relationships with a prospective customer and determining where the company exists within the whole safety matrix. Also, during the meeting, we evaluate workplace conditions, medical management teams and resources and company culture. Our safety management consultant collaborates on a service action plan. That’s part of that initial meeting that we have. It’s before we even write them or offer them a quote. That service action plan focuses on the issues that really reduce risks and costs for the policy holders. Fast forward, when they do become a MEMIC customer and have agreed upon an action plan in place for improving and enhancing safety, performance and culture, we’re off to a running start. [This is because] you don’t have to start from the beginning. You already established that relationship. I’ll tell you, in insurance…relationships are where it’s at.

IJ: What was the reasoning behind MEMIC’s decision to establish this team, and what benefits have you seen it provide so far for agents, brokers, and customers?

KS: Safety has been such a big part of MEMIC’s culture from the very beginning. I really think it starts at the top with our President and CEO John Leonard, who has really created a company culture here at MEMIC of true teamwork within our own departments and provides an ability for us to do our jobs. Our people are empowered. No matter whether it’s underwriting claims, audit, communications – every department within MEMIC is really empowered to do their jobs. Our mantra really is safety, service and excellence. That is who we are, and that’s our DNA. John Leonard has spoken on numerous occasions and in numerous publications where he really does talk about the impact of safety and the importance of the safety department within MEMIC for our policy holders. I’ll tell you – it really started from the top, and the benefits are huge. I mean, if you look at the rates in the state of Maine, they’re just phenomenal. They have been going down. Safety is talked about. We started off as a state that was really suffering from workers’ comp and having a hard time finding providers to come in. Now, it’s a favorable place for people to do business. We’ve been able to provide a lot of benefits for our agents and our brokers and our customers, and at the end of the day, we’re all in it for the same reason.

IJ: In terms of the safety management team’s strategy for working with agents and brokers in particular, is there anything you would like too add about how the team seeks to benefit or serve that particular area of the industry?

KS: One of the things that agents really like about MEMIC is that we’re a worker’s comp carrier that truly puts safety first. We’re consistent. Year after year, we don’t change. We don’t change as the market changes and fluctuates. We don’t say, “Nah. We’re really not doing that anymore.” We’re the same. We’re the same year in and year out. When you’re really successful, you don’t have to change. You can continue doing what you’re doing. If we change, it’s towards the better in increasing our services and increasing some of the things that we do. Our agents really do tend to like what we bring to the table. We certainly love working with them.

IJ: With everything that we’ve spoken about so far in mind, what are some of the main safety issues that you’re seeing in the industry today?

Karl Siegfried
Photo Source: MEMIC Group

KS: Overall, I think companies are doing a better job with safety. As a result, you see injury rates are continuing to go down. If you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics for labor standards, statistics will show you that the number of claims are going down. Injuries are going down. Fatalities are pretty much going down. OSHA has done a great job when it comes to issuing guidelines. Some of the key problems I see right now moving forward are that we have a real issue, especially in the Northeast, with an aging workforce. That’s one of the key things that we see as a challenge. The other one is, once a company gets a positive safety culture, how do you keep it? That’s another area that we’re looking at. With the aging workforce, this is where safety and ergonomics are combined. Companies really need to recognize that as the workforce gets older, the ability for the workers to communicate changes, their vision changes, strength capabilities change, etc. Take my word for it. I’m living proof of all of that. It’s amazing how the body does change over the years. We know that at MEMIC over the last two years, the second highest group that reported claims, frequency wise, has been between 50 and 59 years of age. We’re seeing claims from individuals in their 70s and 80s these days. We never saw that before. When it comes to severity, the 50 to 59 age group is the highest, as well. Cost per claim also increases as age rises. Therefore, the aging workforce is certainly something all companies really need to be made aware of.

IJ: That said, what would you say is some of the best advice or guidance that the team is offering today?

KS: What we found is that we try to handle things a couple of different ways. First, when we’re talking about safety culture, we’re really trying to find the companies that integrate safety within their performance matrix. The first step in that process is for them to get out there and identify some objective safety goals, then come up with the measurements that they need in order to make those happen. Those are more what we call the leading indicators of injuries. Getting people to talk more on and off the job, for example, about safety is one of the key things that you can do. We spend a lot of time training our customers – training them in the benefits of trying to look at the culture within their companies and trying to take the steps they need to improve the safety culture within their companies. What we offer and what we actually get out there and do day in and day out really is so much more than just OSHA compliance. Things would be so much better if everybody took the same stance in company safety as they do their own personal safety. The old adage that is out there these days is: “If you see something, say something.” That should be the same thing for safety. If employees are out there and working, and they see something that’s not good, they should say something. They should make it stop.

IJ: One thing a lot of people talk about is that one of the best ways to control injury cost is through prevention. Could you talk about how companies can take a proactive approach to controlling injury costs through prevention?

KS: Being proactive is where it’s at. That’s honestly where the safety culture comes in. If you have a company that has a strong safety culture, they’re continuing to push themselves to be better. They are pushing themselves to reduce injuries. When they’re starting a new line, or they’re putting in a new piece of machinery, or they’re doing something that’s different, they get out there and analyze and say not only, “What do we need in order to make this happen?” but “What do we need in order to make this happen safely?” There are companies out there doing it, and they see huge benefits in it. At the end of the day, the most important resource any company has, whether it’s MEMIC or whether it’s a machine shop, office or a bank, the most important resource is the people. If you don’t have the people, things aren’t going to go so well, so we need to do whatever we can in order to help that along. Safety culture is something we spend a lot of time on. We also have specialized programs. Worker’s comp is all we do. If we don’t do it well, guess what? We’re out of business. We also have leadership development training classes where we get in, and we help supervisors become supervisors. We recognize that a lot of times, a supervisor becomes a supervisor because they’re good technicians.What we can do with our leadership development program is give them some of the personal skills they need in order to be successful. Those are just some of the things that we do proactively. Everything that we do, we really try to be proactive. We do help customers with accident investigation, and root cause analysis…We try to get them to turn the accident investigations from being something that’s reactive, which obviously they are because an accident’s already happened, but turning it into something proactive. That’s where we identify all the root causes, not just one, and come up with some good plans to keep it from happening again.

IJ: From a financial standpoint, in what ways can ergonomic improvements positively impact a company’s bottom line?

KS: I’m a really firm believer in ergonomics. The stance that I’ve always taken here at MEMIC, and in my entire career in ergonomics, is I’m a firm believer that you want to engineer the behavior you want, not rely on training or reeducation to abate an injury. For example, say that you have someone whose job requires him or her to unload a pallet. The pallet is placed on the floor, and they have to pick the product up off the pallet and put it onto a workbench or conveyor. We all know that bending from the waist to pick something up is bad. We know that it puts people at risk, and it’s where a lot of back injuries happen. Some companies might say, “Hey, can you come in and provide us training on safe lifting techniques? We have a problem here, and people aren’t lifting safely. They need to do this, and we have some real concern.” It’s a good idea to do the safe‑lift training – in fact, we do a lot of safety training in lifting – but at the end of the day, it’s not going to fix the problem. The problem isn’t with the person’s posture, the problem is with where the pallet and the load is located. Get it off the floor. If you raise it off the floor, now you’ve eliminated the reason for somebody to bend over from the waist to pick it up. You want to use engineering to predict what behaviors you’re going to get out of the employees. I think that ergonomics is key when it comes to reducing injuries, and at the same time, increasing efficiencies and in improving quality. Good ergonomics makes good sense all the way around.

IJ: One thing that has been a big topic recently is the opioid crises, with many states issuing legislation or guiding principles to help reduce prescription drug abuse. Can you talk a little bit about the role of workers’ compensation in helping to manage this crisis?

KS: An important part of the laws is really more monitoring, and shorter duration prescriptions before renewals, which MEMIC and the best insurers really already do. Often, the laws are following best practices developed by the leaders in the workers’ compensation industry. Properly monitoring prescriptions is a win‑win for everyone, and it’s really allowed MEMIC to spend only about five percent of the medical cost of claims on pharmaceuticals, while the industry average is actually 10 to 15 percent. We’re not healthcare providers, but we do our best to be meaningful partners in care. Our goal really is for everyone to be able to return to work and lead a meaningful and productive life. We have doctors who will look at more alternative pain management therapies that will be both more effective treatment and more cost effective than opioids. One thing we don’t want is people feeling abandoned by their healthcare providers, and getting similar drugs illegally. We expect to see to an increase in the number of visits to physical and occupational therapists, cognitive behavioral therapists, chiropractors and alternative pain treatment providers, as well as more use of opioid alternatives like anti‑depressants, anticonvulsants, topicals, and beta blockers, etc. It’s definitely an issue that’s out there, and it’s quite a problem in the Northeast.

IJ: Another big workers’ compensation topic is workplace violence. Could you discuss how the safety management team at MEMIC has been involved in providing training and advice for how to handle and avoid workplace violence?

KS: We have specialized training programs on a wide range of topics. Workplace violence is one of them, but we really focus on the area of building security, because it’s a matter of getting in and getting out – who is allowed in and who is allowed out. We accomplish this as an on‑site training. We’ve done several webinars on the topic a well. A lot of it deals in the healthcare environment. When it comes to active shooter training, we refer policy holders to the experts – to local law enforcement or vendors that have a lot more expertise than what MEMIC can provide. It’s a topic that definitely is on our radar, and we’ve tried to address it in various ways. At the end of the day, I think the more security experts that can come in and assist the policy holders, the better it will be.

Correction: It is indicated in the podcast that MEMIC is a healthcare provider that serves primarily agents. MEMIC is not a healthcare provider, and it serves a range of clients including agents, brokers and policy holders.

About Elizabeth Blosfield

Elizabeth Blosfield is the East region editor for Insurance Journal. She can be reached at eblosfield@wellsmedia.com. More from Elizabeth Blosfield

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