We made a significant investment in time and money over several years to get our program where it is today. It has paid off. We saw an immediate reduction in losttime injuries, and have seen a corresponding reduction in our Worker's Comp modifier, along with a significant reduction in our health insurance premiums.

Dan Thayer, P.E., CIAQP, CEM, is president and CEO of the Thayer Corp., Auburn, ME. When he's not running in marathons, Dan can be reached at 207/782-4197 or e-mail
dthayer @thayercorp.com
.


BY DAN THAYER, P.E.

All of us in the HVAC industry recognize that two factors are critical to our success: hiring and retaining good employees, and minimizing ever-increasing insurance costs. At Thayer Corporation, we have addressed these issues by creating an employee protection plan that integrates preemployment capacity testing, injury triage, case management, employee wellness, and insurance. It has resulted in healthier employees and significant insurance savings, and can serve as a model for managers of other HVAC companies who are seeking to protect their most important assets: their people.

The Challenges — and a Solution
Let's start at the top: the worker shortage. All of us know we need to win "the recruiting game" to land the best employees from a limited (and shrinking) pool of qualified candidates. However, we also must maximize the health, skills, and longevity of our existing employees.

At Thayer Corp., we found ourselves faced with other challenges related to our workforce. See if these sound familiar:

  • Escalating insurance costs
  • Limited control of injury cases
  • Too many lost-time injuries
  • Volatile Worker's Comp costs
  • Long injury recovery periods
  • A need to maintain our positive employee relations.

Our employee protection plan helps us address these challenges through a four-pronged approach: a Job Placement Assessment, a Health Risk Assessment, an Injury Treatment and Management Program, and a Wellness Program. Here's a look inside each element of the program.

Job Placement Assessment
Our employee protection plan begins even before someone is an employee. We have contracted with an outside service provider to objectively measure the ability of an employee-candidate to safely perform their intended job. This assessment is performed following a bonafide employment offer from us -— with the employment offer subject to the candidate passing the assessment.

This assessment measures the candidate's ability using industry-established measurement protocols, such as flexibility, ability to climb a ladder, etc.. We then receive a "red," "yellow," or "green" recommendation from the tester. A "green" recommendation indicates the candidate is physically able to handle the job, a "red" recommendation indicates this candidate should not be hired for the particular position. A "yellow" assessment indicates the candidate may need additional assistance (e.g., may need to quit smoking, or increase his or her flexibility) to handle the job.

Keep in mind these are strictly recommendations from the company that provides the assessment, and the final call is up to us. However, it does serve as a way to weed out candidates who are likely to be unable to handle a job, from a physical standpoint, for the long-term.

An added benefit of the job placement assessment is that it gives us the opportunity to introduce candidates to our wellness program, and to impress upon them how important their health and safety is to the company.

Health Risk Assessment
We ask all of our employees to fill out a voluntary, confidential, eight-page health survey. The results of this annual survey are communicated to management without including the employees' names.

The purpose of the survey is to gauge employees' needs and desires relating to their health and what the company can help them with — such as weight loss, smoking cessation, etc. The goal is to allow management to apportion resources to maximize the benefit and impact of the employee health plan.

The confidentiality of the survey is important to ensure compliance with the Health Information Portability Act (HIPA), a federal privacy protection program. If you undertake this at your company, first consult with a lawyer familiar with HIPA.

Injury Management and Treatment

A vexing challenge for many contractors can be taking care of minor injuries, and ensuring that employees return to work in a timely manner after suffering a minor injury.

At Thayer Corp., two treatment rooms are an integral part of our building. We use these rooms to apply first aid in-house for non-emergency injuries. We apply heat, cold, stretching, stabilization, etc., and make sure that care from an outside provider, if necessary, is scheduled promptly.

We work closely with a group of care providers in our community who report back to us immediately, and who understand our desire to have employees return to work as soon as they are able.

In cases in which the injured employee cannot return to his or her usual duties, we accommodate them with modified job, or light-duty jobs until they're 100% again. Throughout it all, we monitor their treatment program to ensure they're following the path back to wellness. We feel much better about doing this with the employee coming into the office every day, even in a limited capacity, than we do about the employee's ability to take care of him or herself at home.

Wellness

Many companies talk about "changing the culture" through a variety of programs. Our employee health plan truly does that, because its impact extends beyond working hours into employees' personal lives. We offer the services of a personal health counselor, who meets every quarter with our employees, helps them establish and reach health goals, and conducts the annual health risk assessments. We conduct company events we call "wellness outings," such as hikes in the mountains. We offer employees financial incentives to participate in our health programs, and we have invested in state-of-the-art exercise equipment, and installed lockers and showers in a special area of our office so employees can work out here instead of at the gym.

Through education, we have made our employees-more responsible for their own health, and we assist them in behavior modification so they can stay healthy. All of this serves to reduce unnecessary medical consumption.

The Results

We made a significant investment in time and money over several years to get our program where it is today. It has paid off. We saw an immediate reduction in lost-time injuries, and have seen a corresponding reduction in our Worker's Comp modifier, along with a significant reduction in our health insurance premiums. We are seeing more employee "up time," and the culture is changing to one that is increasingly health-and safety-aware.

Our plans for the future of the program include involving more spouses and families, increasing incentives for participation, increasing nutritional education, and scheduling more fun events, such as our mountain hikes.

Keep in mind, however, that you must be patient if you decide to institute an employee protection plan at your company. This culture change, like any other, happens slowly. Keep after it. It will pay off for your employees every day and your company in the long run.

STEPS TO SUCCESS

Here are some keys to designing a successful employee health plan:

  • Establish a program committee to involve employees from every department
  • Incentivize participation
  • Find and invest in good occupational medicine and physician partners
  • Define action protocols for accidents, new hires, and communication of the program both inside the company and with outside providers
  • Create measurement metrics, monitor the program's progress, and communicate the results
  • Stay involved!

Additional Resources:
www.welcoa.org
www.keymethod.com

This article is based on the presentation, A Model Employee Protection Plan, which Dan Thayer gave at the 2005 Commercial Contracting Roundtable, held in Scottsdale, AZ, Oct. 25-26.

The Commercial Contracting Roundtable, which also incorporates the Design/Build Seminar, is co-sponsored by the Air Conditioning Contractors of America (ACCA) and Contracting Business magazine. In 2005, the Roundtable presented 16 business management and technical sessions specifically tailored for commercial HVAC and Design/Build contractors.

For more information about the 2006 Commercial Contracting Roundtable, contact Richard Ware at ACCA, 703/824-8843, or watch www.acca.org or www.contractingbusiness.com for details.

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