City examining efforts to improve workforce safety

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By John Larson
jlarson@tacomaweekly.com

In an effort to improve the safety of the workforce, as well as control costs of treating on-the-job injuries, the cCty of Tacoma has embarked on a citywide safety initiative. Tacoma City Council heard an update on the topic during the Aug. 20 study session. The presenters were Cheryl Bidleman, assistant human resources director of Tacoma Public Utilities; John Lawrence, utility technology services director for TPU; and Matthew Janzow, a management analyst for the city

They shared information that reveals City of Tacoma workers are injured at a higher rate than their peers in all local governments in the United States and Washington, as well as the private sectors. The injury incident rate per 100 full-time employees in Tacoma is 7.2, compared to five for all local governments in the nation, 6.2 for local governments in the state and four in the private sector.

The average Tacoma worker injured on the job misses 2.4 days of work, just about 2.3 for other local governments. On average, two injured Tacoma workers require a job transfer or a restriction on duties he or she can perform, a rate that is under one for the other employer categories.

From 2014 to 2018, the city spent $26.5 million on worker compensation claims, which “is nothing to sneeze at,” said Lawrence. On average, the city spends $9,000 on an injury claim, with the average time loss claim being $23,000.

To reduce the number of injuries, and the cost to taxpayers to treat those injuries, the TPU director and city manager and their staff are overseeing collaboration and engagement at all levels of general government as well as TPU. The executive leadership has prioritized eight safety objectives.

The focus right now is on three of the goals. The first is to research, design and recommend a framework for safety, including reporting and governance structure, roles, goals and expectations. The second is to create and implement a recruiting and hiring strategy for a senior level safety professional who will lead the city-wide safety effort. The third is to identity strengths and recommend improvements and/or additions to the existing safety program.

Bidleman explained the concept of a Strength, Weakness, Opportunities and Threats (SWOT) analysis. The city conducted five of these, collecting feedback from employees across the city government. This feedback was compared to safety and health guidelines of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Bidleman said the findings were, unfortunately, not surprising.

Lawrence explained the next step of recruiting for a person to serve as safety director for the city, along with plans for additional education and outreach. Staff will identify a funding source during upcoming budget adjustments. Code revisions are also being developed.

Councilmember Lillian Hunter said she would like more information about how many injuries occur, their severity and how long any employees spend being treated in a hospital.

Councilmember Keith Blocker asked what is the most common type of injuries. Lawrence said they are soft tissue injuries and sprains and strains.

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