A Dangerous Claim

Published 10:43 pm Saturday, May 9, 2009

IRONTON — Twelve months ago, while spring was turning to summer and graduation caps dotted area auditoriums and bleachers, the city of Ironton found itself in a quagmire — stuck in a bureaucratic mud pit filled with limited, yet long term solutions.

Something was wrong, that was sure. But how did it come about this way? City workers, primarily those within the Ironton water department, were missing more and more days of work due to injury. Compensation claims — primarily for lower back ailments and carpal tunnel syndrome — skyrocketed.

And so did payments by the city.

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In one year alone, Ironton saw its workers comp spending zoom up nearly 195 percent resulting in payments of more than $200,000. Previously, high payment years were considered to be around $70,000.

The state noticed as well.

Officials from the Ohio Bureau of Workers Compensation slapped the city and its workforce with a “high risk” tag usually reserved for communities 10 times Ironton’s size.

The BWC is a state agency that provides medical and compensation benefits for work-related injuries, diseases and deaths for municipalities and businesses.

Workers compensation claims stay on a city’s books for six years regardless of the extent of the claim.

The first two years are handled by the agency while the next four years the city is responsible for the premiums. So a claim filed in 2009 would not be clear of the city’s ledgers until 2015.

Saddled with an expanding list of claims and budget-busting premiums to the BWC, the payments and paperwork overwhelmed the city’s finance department, at the time responsible for handling claims.

But with limited staffing and no one directly dedicated or experienced enough in the finance department to tackle the city’s growing workers comp issues, Mayor Rich Blankenship knew the time was now to get this growing beast under control.

With the strike of a pen and a unanimous vote from city council, Blankenship reinstalled the city’s benefits specialist position — a job council eliminated just a few years earlier in the attempt to save general fund monies.

Blankenship named seasoned city administrator Katrina Keith head of the department and outfitted her with two major tasks — bring the premiums under control and implement better safety regulations throughout the city.

That was 12 months ago.

Now, 365 days later and a year under her belt, Keith says she is “seeing progress” on improving Ironton’s work habits and the number of claims filed.

Progress so noticeable, that current city personnel records detailing more than 125 full and part-time workers show not a single city worker out on disability with only a handful regulated to “light duty” work.

“Our goal was to be proactive instead of being reactive when it came to claims, equipment and safety,” Keith said. “We had to change with the times.”

A dangerous trade

No one is going to tell Mark White that water line work is easy. Actually, he would put his staff up against anyone in terms of job toughness.

“Doing this is a hard and tough job,” White said. “It can be a very labor intensive and stressful position.”

White should know. As superintendent of the city’s water department, he watches his staff tackle projects sometimes in the worst of conditions and in many times, anxious situations such as water main breaks and crowded repairs to piping — some of it more than 100 years old.

It’s backbreaking work — literally.

“Much of what we do involves tough valve work by hand and workers using hammers, chisels and scrapers to clean pipe,” White said.

As a result, with less-than-modern equipment, water department employees were at risk on a daily basis of injury based on current procedure.

White knew things had to change and Keith took action.

“We didn’t have the proper equipment to do the job,” Keith said.

First, Keith obtained a $40,000 grant from the state to purchase two items she and White felt could make life a little easier for workers and, in time, possibly reduce workers comp claims.

One of the items purchased was a Wachs Valve Turning Machine. As part of a hitched trailer, the machine allowed workers access to hard to reach valves without having to tear up unnecessary amounts of concrete with jackhammers.

It also lessened the amount of back injuries as the machine had the ability to turn valves without using manually-intensive street keys. Equipped with pressure washing and vacuuming abilities, reliance on the hammers, chisels and scrapers to clean and access piping decreased.

The other item the department received was a hydraulic jackhammer that could be attached to a backhoe. White said the heavy vibrations the previously jackhammer caused have now “decreased quite a bit.”

Vibrations caused by jackhammers are one of the leading causing of carpal tunnel in the United States workforce, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

White acknowledges that both the new valve turning machine and hydraulic jackhammer have helped.

“In the long run, it helped us out,” White said. “The department has run more efficiently.”

But for Katrina Keith, while she knew the equipment improved the demands of the task given to her, it wasn’t fully complete.

Not even close.

A change in safety

Understanding that safety in the city’s workforce was not limited just to its water department, Keith gathered the various department heads along with representatives from the Fraternal Order of Police and its other bargaining unions to form Ironton’s first ever safety committee.

Outfitted with training, an upcoming safety manual and monthly meetings, Keith said the committee allows the various departments to strategize on how to make their employees more aware of the possible hazards they could encounter. An evacuation plan was even drafted for employees in all city buildings.

Keith has even created safety training workshops for department heads and supervisors and had a pair of defibrillators, purchased through a grant from King’s Daughters Medical Center, located at both the Ironton Fire Department and the Ironton City Center.

And for Keith, even though the impact of trimming payments on workers compensation claims based on Ohio’s formula are several years away, she knows a new perspective on the issue by all who work for the city of Ironton was most important.

“We are now looking ahead. The more we communicate, the better the city flows.”