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Texas agency helping keep injury rates down
Numbers Falling, Not People

In March, 15 people were killed and more than 100 injured in an explosion at a BP Amoco refinery in Texas City, throwing a spotlight on efforts to ensure workplace safety.

Worker conditions have been improving in Texas over the past 14 years, said Karen Puckett, the business development and performance manager for the Texas Worker's Compensation Commission's (TWCC's) Health and Safety Division.

"The Texas rate of occupational injury and illness per 100 full-time workers has consistently remained below the national rate since the data collection began in 1990," Puckett said. "The most current data [for 2003] show that Texas' injury/illness incidence rate is 4.0, while the national rate is 5.0."

Various free and low-cost safety training programs, consultations and inspections have made Texas the fourth-safest state to work in, behind New York, Louisiana and North Carolina, said Steve Quick, a TWCC spokesman.

The number of Texas workers hurt while on the job has decreased steadily since 2000, down from a high of 207,000 in 2000 to 122,000 in 2004, according to TWCC's Texas Worker's Compensation System Data Report.

Looking for volunteers
Texas is the only state where participation in workers compensation programs is voluntary.

"Sixty-two percent of [Texas] employers carry worker's compensation insurance," Quick said. "It's hard to say if it's low because there aren't any other states to compare it with. In every other state, it's 100 percent."

Texas companies have four choices when deciding what to do for workers compensation, Quick said. Employers can purchase their own commercial policy, join an association that offers coverage in their packages, self-insure or not carry any insurance whatsoever.

"That's a business decision that every employer has to make on whether they can afford it or whether they can't afford it," Quick said. "The medical coverage associated with an injury is a lifetime benefit as long as it's reasonable and necessary. It only takes one injury or death to where that whole business can go under."

While the TWCC can't help companies get cheaper worker's compensation insurance, they can help create safer work environments, which can save big bucks, Puckett said.

"Our training is on a cost-recovery basis," she said. "When companies are looking at their budgets for training, it's a lot cheaper than hiring a private training company."

Pick a subject
The commission offers more than 200 pamphlets on worker safety, including how to deal with diseases such as SARS and chickenpox, ergonomics programs and tractor safety. The information is also available on the agency's Web site at www.twcc.state.tx.us. Two-thirds of the publications are available in Spanish, with more to come, Puckett said.

While Texas does not have state requirements for worker's compensation insurance, all private companies must still meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines for safety and training, Puckett said.

"For private companies, OSHA requires safety training on certain topics depending on what type of business they're in and what the workers are exposed to," Puckett said.

The TWCC conducts Occupational Safety and Health Consultations (OSHCONs) to help companies comply with OSHA standards. OSHA funds the consultations.

"We help them understand the OSHA regulations and understand how to identify hazards in their workplace--how to put together their required training programs," Puckett said.

The TWCC also offers customized on-site consultations and inspections for $25 an hour, plus travel from Austin for companies not under OSHA guidelines, Puckett said. The program is voluntary.

"For a minimal fee, we do a comparison for the injury rates of 12 months before and after for companies we provide training for as a measure of our effectiveness," she said. "For our OSHCON training, we had a 29.03 percent reduction in injury rates for 2,918 companies last year."

Employers contact TWCC and determine the scope of the training, Puckett said.

"If they want us to do a complete walk through and evaluate everything, [such as] industrial hygiene, air sampling, noise monitoring, so they can see what the exposure levels are for their employees, we do it," she said. "And it's free for all private industries under OSHA jurisdiction."

For $90 a day, the commission will conduct regional seminars for public or private companies.

Pre-emptive action
Since September 2004, TWCC has conducted 288 seminars and on-site consultations, training about 1,160 employees, Puckett said. The commission has had about 800,000 hits on the safety publications available on the Web site.

The TWCC also maintains a library of more than 3,000 videos available to employers all over the state. Employers can fax or mail a request form at least three weeks before the video is needed, and TWCC staff will send it in the mail, Puckett said.

"Their only cost is for return postage and insurance to send it back to us, which amounts to only a few dollars," she added.

Solving company problems
Although the TWCC conducts more than 3,100 safety consultations a year and has material available to companies of all sizes, the agency is geared toward helping smaller employers and high-hazard industries, such as petrochemical and manufacturing companies, Puckett said.

"A lot of large companies already have these types of resources available to them," she said. "We especially want to help the smaller employers that can't hire the safety professionals or don't have that complicated of operations to do so."

Sterling Chemicals Inc., a petrochemical company with a plant in Texas City located two miles from the explosion at BP Amoco, has its corporate office in Houston. The company has 336 employees. All but 20 work at the plant site, said Bruce Moore, the Sterling Chemicals treasurer. The company maintains worker's compensation insurance for all employees.

Since July 2000, Sterling has had 36 worker's compensation claims filed against it, with only two still unresolved, Moore said.

"Our loss history has been fairly good," he said. "Most claims that we have are related to fairly minor injuries, such as minor sprains, contusions, etc. Sterling recently completed 250 consecutive days without a recordable injury, which is an outstanding achievement in our industry."

Along with its insurance company, Atlanta-based Crawford and Co., Sterling resolves most of its cases internally before having to go before a TWCC benefit review conference, said Erika Suzuki, a project coordinator for Crawford and Co.

"[The TWCC's] role is as a moderator of the conference and to listen to the employee statement, the employer statement and to help render a decision regarding the amount of benefits," Suzuki said. "[The TWCC] is very helpful and very diligent in trying to get things resolved."

Change of address?
A bill in the Texas House of Representatives recommends that the Texas Workforce Commission take over the TWCC's educational responsibilities to improve outreach and employer education. The Texas Department of Insurance would take over the regulatory duties. A Senate Bill would abolish TWCC and replace it with the Texas Department of Workers' Compensation.

Ann Holdsworth