One cannot pick up a newspaper or turn on a TV or radio in Appalachia and many other parts of the country without hearing a discussion on the subject of worker’s compensation. At the recent joint spring meeting of the West Virginia Coal Mining Institute and the West Virginia Coal Association, two presenters discussed worker’s compensation including Governor Bob Wise.
Politicians point out that worker’s compensation systems are going broke and that something urgently must be done to fix the situation. Some of these solutions are to restructure the management, restructure the finances, control factors that increase benefit costs, and improve administrative practices. These items are discussed at great length, but two basic points seem always to be forgotten.
If worker’s compensation systems are to be fixed, then there are two things which must happen. First, it must be accepted that worker’s compensation claims are a management problem and management in industry must make great efforts to improve the working environment such that workers do not look for excuses to take time off by filing doubtful compensation claims. Second, management must accept its responsibility to introduce a culture of greater safety and improved health in the workplace. The coal industry has made great strides in providing greater safety and health and reducing the number of accidents to the extent that it is now safer to work in a coal mine than it is to work in construction or manufacturing.
When raising the matter of improving the safety record in the workplace, the answer that most politicians in West Virginia give is that West Virginia’s accident rate is about average in the nation. There somehow is an acceptance that this is satisfactory and of course it certainly is not. The worker’s compensation issue is going to require extraordinary solutions and an average performance is not good enough.
The subject of worker’s compensation gains an enormous amount of press coverage but there no mention of providing greater safety and improved health in the workplace and thus getting to the heart of the problem. An enormous opportunity of creating a campaign and publicizing greater safety and improved health in the workplace has been totally lost. Each article and commentary on worker’s compensation could easily be accompanied by an appeal for greater safety and improved health to encourage this culture throughout every workplace.
Politicians should come to grips with this matter and recognize that by reducing accidents and improving health there would be a dramatic impact on the financial crisis within many worker’s compensation systems. The coal industry has taken a great leap forward and improvements in safety and health during the past few years have been dramatic. Other industries need to learn from this experience and provide a consistent campaign for greater safety and health. This would contribute substantially to reducing both the human cost as well as the financial cost of worker’s compensation.
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