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Safe, Not Sorry

Reducing Workplace Injuries Bick Jones remembers the bad old days in workers' compensation insurance.

Ten years ago, many states suffered through a period of rising premiums and costly stress claims. "We were uninsurable for awhile," says Jones, owner of Ducky-Bob's Cannonball Party Rentals of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, and vice president of operations for Stellar Event and Presentation Resources, headquartered in Houston.

Reforms in the workers' comp system took off some of the pressure. But the tough times made Jones more conscious of workplace safety, a concern that continues today.

WHAT'S THE RISK? As an industry, party rental has a lower risk side and a higher risk side.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median for workplace risk is about 7.5, which is a measurement of accidents per total employee hours. The "party rental and leasing" group has a risk rate of 3.6, based on 1998 figures, which is relatively low. However, for the "special trade contractor" group, which includes companies that install elaborate structures and rigging for special effects, the risk rate is 9.1.

"Despite their differences, the two groups have similar recurring injuries," reports Paige Cormier, loss prevention managing consultant with the Houston office of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group. "They are injuries resulting from manual material handling and slip-and-falls."

GET WITH THE PROGRAM "When we finally got coverage again, our carrier helped us build incentive programs on safety issues," Jones says. "We've kept all of them; they work very well."

Jones targets his safety efforts. "We try to set up the whole safety program so that we are applying the most attention to where we perceive the highest risk to be," he says. "This is primarily injuries with delivery personnel during the loading and unloading of trucks."

The safety program is nothing complicated. "We give out simple things like pins," Jones says. "We also have awarded money to recognize a entire department. The department head can choose to take everyone out for a meal or go to the local department store for gifts."

Although some companies shun incentive programs out of fear that they pressure employees to conceal injuries, Jones says that risk can be managed. "We structure the program so that minor injuries-those involving no lost work time or just a couple of stitches-don't interfere with the benefit of the program."

He believes his investment in safety is money well spent. "We probably spend in the low five figures for our programs, but a single claim can easily run into six figures," he says. "In terms of awareness of safety, you come out way ahead."

ROLL 'EM Dave Painter, owner of Chantilly, Va.-based Chantilly General Rental, believes that "people say they're party rental, but that's not true. We're really moving companies."

And Painter keeps things moving by putting as much equipment as possible on wheels, thus protecting against injuries from lifting.

"We made boxes, carts or wheeled dollies for all our equipment," he explains. Not only does this spare employees from extra lifting, but also, "the equipment stays in better shape, and it's much quicker and easier for guys to load a square box than a coffee urn or chafing dish."

When a medical facility nearby closed down, "we bought all their wheeled shelving, and it's been spectacular," Painter adds. "Now when we pull an order, all glassware, china and flatware go on racks. It's then shrink-wrapped and goes to the loading dock and rolls onto the truck. We've cut down the number of steps for the person picking the order."

Art Bowerman, party rental man-ager for Taylor Rental Center of Mount Laurel, N.J., is a stickler for safety equipment. "We make sure our workers use back braces, steel-toed shoes and gloves," he says.

The company also ensures that workers do as little heavy lifting as possible. "We use hydraulic lift-gate trucks," he says. "We also have special carts that roll on a lawn. When you're handling a 300-to-400-pound tent top, you had better be prepared to roll it."

He also recognizes the power of demonstrating concern for employee welfare. "When we have four or five guys on the road setting up tents all day and it's humid, we make sure they wear hats and have a jug of Gatorade," he says. "It's important to keep an eye on the guys; we all watch each other for signs of dehydration. It boosts morale when they know that we care."

Safety training pays off for Panache Party Rentals of Pompano Beach, Fla.

"Every year we have a guy from our truck leasing company come out to teach truck driver training," says vice president Bob DeFriest.

BUILT-IN SAFETY Santa Ana, Calif.-based Regal International has engineered safety right into the workplace.

"Our new warehouse, which we moved into a year ago, in itself has saved on claims," explains vice president Ron Weiss. "It's 90,000 square feet, so everything isless congested. We have 20 loading docks versus three in the old warehouse."

With the extra space, "everything is on racks, so we're using forklifts more. There's less lifting; everything can just be rolled onto the trucks."

Weiss is pragmatic: "There are still times when a guy will fall off a ladder. You have to hire good people and then train them."

Resources: Chantilly General Rental, 703/378-2255; Ducky-Bob's Cannon-ball Party Rentals, 972/381-8000,; Liberty Mutual Group, 617/357-9500, www.liberty; Panache Party Rentals, 954/781-5335; Regal International, 800/45-REGAL (73425), www.regal; Superior National, 800/800-8430; Taylor Rental Center, 856/235-6117,

Workers' compensation insurance carriers recommend that party rental operators get aggressive about cutting the risk of workplace injury. "Anything you can do to eliminate rather than just minimize that exposure goes a long way toward controlling losses," says Paige Cormier, loss prevention managing consultant with the Houston office of Boston-based Liberty Mutual Group. Here are some suggestions:

Set limits. "You need to set criteria for the maximum weight and require team lifting for heavier weights," says Ron Furuta, risk control consultant for Superior National of Woodland Hills, Calif. "Employees should know to get two people if the weight is over, say, 25 pounds."

Haste makes hurts. "Schedule the jobs properly, and pace them out" so that employees don't rush and injure themselves, Furuta adds.

Roll with it. Anytime you can put items on a cart or dolly to transport them, do it, Furuta recommends.

Call the carrier. "Our loss prevention service will come out to your facility and help you trend your losses-where they are happening, how and why," Cormier says. "We will also check your blueprints for a new facility to help avoid safety problems later on."

Safety starts at the top. "Good safety programs flow from the top down. Management has to be committed to operating a safe work environment," Cormier says. "If that's the culture of your company, then employees' behavior will change and your losses will be less."

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