A stretch goal for safety

April 1, 2001

This metal finishing company was doing a pretty good job of holding down workers& comp claims, but not good enough for the guy at the top.

 

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A stretch goal for safety

By Chad Abresch MEd, Craig Johnson and Bo Abresch

This company was doing a good job of holding down workers' comp claims, but not good enough for the guy at the top. Working harder at protecting workers proved to be a good deed with a payoff.

Marc LeBaron didn't set out to save Lincoln Plating Company $800,000. As president and CEO of one of the 10 largest metal finishing companies in the nation, he just wanted to do right by his workforce, which now totals 300 employees. In 1993, the Nebraska-based company's workers' compensation claims hit a record $61,000. That was far below the industry average of $150,000, but LP was determined to reduce injuries no matter what the industry numbers revealed.

The strategy LeBaron chose? A mandatory stretching program before each of LP's three shifts. Granted, that's not a groundbreaking concept. What's noteworthy is the company's motivation and the eventual rewards of good intentions.

The stretching program was developed through a combination of physical therapy and nursing conferences, commonsense approaches and discussions with doctors treating LP employees for musculoskeletal disorders. Records of the company's most common MSDs provided targets for the actual exercises.

Stretching is done before shifts in work groups. For about 15 minutes, employees focus sequentially on the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, arms, hands, fingers, waist and legs. The company developed a poster that illustrates proper technique for each move, and line coordinators lead the exercise. The coordinators were trained at the outset of the program, and the company's nurse routinely visits work groups to ensure that stretches are being performed and led properly.

Not everyone in management shared LeBaron's enthusiasm. Some board executives didn't see the value of injury prevention in the glare of hundreds of thousands of dollars potentially lost to work stoppage during stretch time. They saw over 100 hours of labor a day being spent on something totally intangible at an estimated labor cost as high as half a million dollars a year.

The first year's results were reassuring. Those record-high workers' comp costs dropped more than 90 percent to only $4,000 in 1994. But then the company entered a period of rapid growth. Lots of financial indicators fluctuated, but comp claims went on a roller-coaster ride. They bounced back up to $39,000 in fiscal 1995 and $57,000 in 1996, then dropped to $20,000 in 1997. Still, they remained below the $61,000 baseline, even though the workforce had expanded.

Experience with the program alleviated the board's concerns about lost work time. The stretching routines were actually taking an average 15 minutes, half the original estimate. This cut the estimated cost of lost work time to a more reasonable $100,000 annually.

The program had indeed been cost-effective. Over the course of five years LP saved $800,000—$600,000 from workers' compensation and $200,000 from associated medical claims.

The end of the decade brought more challenges. Carol Friesen, company nurse and architect of the stretching program, retired. Her departure might have knocked the momentum out of the program, but management understood the value of an experienced employee's vision and sense of history. They hired Friesen as a consultant to work with the program's new coordinators.

Meanwhile, LP's business success continued to spur workforce expansion. Those new and untrained workers represented increased risk of injury, so each is immersed in the stretching program from day one on the job.

LP's stretching program is a work in progress, but its success thus far teaches a valuable lesson in business strategy: Looking after your workers is a good way of looking after your bottom line.

Chad Abresch is WELCOA's senior staff writer for consumer and organizational publications. Craig Johnson manages WELCOA's national Well Workplace Awards Initiative. Bo Abresch is the Director of Communications.

 

Chad Abresch. A stretch goal for safety. Business and Health 2001;4:46.