When Ryan Brown joined Raben Tire Co. in 2001 as safety director, it did not take him long to realize where he would be spending most of his time.
``My first 26 months here at Raben were taken up by nothing but workers' comp,'' he said. ``It was such an issue, such a priority, I would almost classify it as a crisis.''
Workers' comp losses, which had climbed to a single-year high of nearly $1 million before he arrived, were largely from back, shoulder and knee injuries sustained by workers handling truck tires for commercial vehicles in Raben Tire's outlets. The company has some 640 employees, operates 37 stores and has its headquarters in a 100,000-sq.-ft. building that also serves as a distribution facility in Evansville, Ind.
In fact, injury rates and claims were so high that Cincinnati Insurance Co., which had written Raben Tire's workers' comp insurance for more than 20 years, decided to quit providing it not long after Mr. Brown arrived.
``There were no hard feelings because I can't blame them,'' said Mr. Brown, now Raben Tire's director of risk management and fleet operations. ``I always put myself in the insurance company's chair and ask, `How good of a risk are we? Would I want to write insurance for Raben Tire's workers' comp?' If it was on a guaranteed-cost program, I wouldn't do it,'' he said of the risk at the time.
Fairfield, Ohio-based Cincinnati Insurance was charging Raben Tire more than $900,000 annually for coverage, ``and they were still losing money,'' Mr. Brown said. The dealership's experience modification factor-a rate insurers use to calculate workers' comp premiums-had reached 2.52 when the insurer called it quits in 2002.
``I had never heard of one that high,'' Mr. Brown said. ``Our losses were mounting, and accident frequencies were very high. We had a high disability rate. A lot of folks who got hurt never came back to work.''
As he began studying Raben Tire's accidents and claims, it became clear to Mr. Brown that the company did not have the proper pre-loss and post-loss procedures in place to prevent injuries and hold down claims costs.
Prequalification of workers to determine whether they are suited for the job, training and the use of proper equipment are important in helping prevent injuries, he noted.
``And then once a loss happens, how do we as a company handle the claim?'' he asked.
Addressing those considerations after he arrived at Raben Tire, Mr. Brown was able to implement programs designed to lower the odds of a workplace injury and increase the chances that an injured employee will be given proper care and returned to work as soon as possible.
There was a lot of room for improvement in post-loss procedures, Mr. Brown said, so his attention went toward handling injury claims.
A big post-loss problem was Raben Tire's failure to direct injured workers to occupational medicine providers, Mr. Brown said. ``We let the em-ployee pick his family practitioner, which not only added to claims costs, but left us as an em-ployer out of the picture in the ability to manage claims.''
The company now has in all locations a ``relationship with a care provider that I have personally met with,'' Mr. Brown said. ``They understand our goals as an employer of getting our people the best care we can and getting them back to pre-accident condition as soon as possible.''
Visits to that physician are not compulsory, but are strongly encouraged. The care providers mostly are local health care facilities with occupational medicine expertise.
``Some of our locations are very rural,'' he said, and do not have access to a provider with that specialty. ``Sometimes our best alternative is a family practitioner who understands our needs as an employer.''
Raben Tire also needed to get its workers back on the job sooner, allowing them to perform light-duty tasks if they were not ready to move back to a more physically demanding job.
Because injured employees were not allowed to return to work until they were deemed by physicians to be able to handle their jobs, the company was chalking up an ``inordinate amount of lost time that we were paying people for,'' Mr. Brown said.
Raben Tire's return-to-work program arose out of a conversation Mr. Brown had with store managers during the first safety meeting he held with them.
He asked the managers to consider the question, ``If you were given an extra employee, what tasks would you have them perform?''
Their answers, which Mr. Brown noted on a flip chart, included cleaning sales displays, picking up litter in parking lots, cleaning windows and floors and distributing store literature on cars at mall parking lots.
``I said, `Thanks, guys, for the input,' and ripped off the chart page,'' Mr. Brown recalled.
Later that day, when the group discussed a return-to-work program, some managers objected that ``if a person can't do their normal job, then we don't have anything for them to do,'' Mr. Brown said.
Out came the list, and Mr. Brown pointed out that the managers earlier in the day had given him dozens of light-duty tasks an employee who is not fully recovered could perform.
With such a plan now in place, he said, ``our philosophy is getting that person back to work and getting any output at all is better than paying the lost wages and getting zero output.''
Other pre-hire moves have helped keep workers' comp losses low, Mr. Brown said.
Raben Tire takes a look at the motor vehicle reports of all its potential employees, giving them a level of scrutiny depending on the job the applicant wants. Those applying to drive delivery or sales vehicles will have their motor vehicle reports most closely examined.
In addition to its own in-house safety and training program, the company uses the Tire Industry Association's (TIA) Basic Automotive Tire Service and Commercial Tire Service training programs for new retail hires. The video program provides safety information as well as instruction in such techniques as putting a vehicle onto a lift, performing tire rotations and repair, properly torquing wheels and other common procedures.
Another TIA program is used for those going into the commercial side of the business.
There have been workplace changes as well, among them the introduction of training in proper lifting techniques, stretching exercises, advice on avoiding overexertion and the use of mechanical devices that make tire handling easier.
The company installed lift gates on all its commercial service vehicles and began using a mechanical ``tire dunker'' at its stores, according to Mr. Brown. The machine submerges a pressurized tire in water to find a leak, replacing the cumbersome process whereby two workers wrestled to hold a tire under water.
The stores also use new, lighter equipment to make sure wheels are tightened to the proper torque. The equipment not only is easier to handle, it also decreases the risk that a customer will have a problem with a wheel that was improperly installed.
The various programs have paid off. Lost-time dropped to 0.8 days per worker in 2005, from a high of 17.2 days in 1998. Workers' comp losses were $134,924 for the year ending Sept. 30, 2005, down from nearly $1 million in fiscal year 2000. Those losses are projected at $96,000 for 2006.
In addition, the fat experience modifier that was once 2.52 has shrunk to 1.14.
Early improvements helped Mr. Brown in 2001 find an insurer to replace the departing Cincinnati. He marketed Raben Tire's account on the strength of improvements in lost-time injury rates, shrinking workers' comp losses and the potential for the changes he had implemented to further bring down injuries and costs.
Philadelphia-based PMA Insurance Group ``took a really hard look at us and liked what they saw,'' Mr. Brown said. ``That was our first venture into a large-deductible program'' and a ``big leap of faith'' from the fixed-cost arrangement written by Cincinnati, he added.
PMA wrote the coverage for a year, and now Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group Inc. writes the policy.
The coverage, a large-deductible retro program, calls for Raben Tire to pay the first $250,000 of each loss. Under the program, the company is eligible for a rebate or can be on the hook for additional payments, depending on how losses develop.
The Liberty Mutual coverage costs around $212,000, a huge savings compared with the guaranteed-cost program written by Cincinnati Insurance when workers' comp losses were not under control.
As of earlier this year, Raben Tire had not experienced a claim larger than its deductible.