City of Tulsa's 'weak safety culture' costs millions in employee injuries, claims
BY RANDY KREHBIEL World Staff Writer
Monday, July 30, 2012
12/10/12 at 4:15 PM
Related Story: Tulsa mayor says costs of safety problems go beyond dollars
City officials knew work-related injuries were a problem when they hired DuPont Sustainable Solutions to conduct a safety assessment review, but they may not have appreciated just how much of a problem it was.
Dupont scored Tulsa a .9 on a 0 to 5 scale, with the consultants saying the city has a "weak safety culture" that does not connect individual compensation or departmental budgets to safety records.
"It obviously shows that we have a very, very serious problem with safety," Mayor Dewey Bartlett said. "(DuPont) said we have a very systemic problem, a cultural problem, in our work force."
In February, the city reported its workers compensation costs had gone up 44 percent in eight years, to levels several times higher than comparable cities. Tulsa spent $10.5 million on workers' compensation in the budget year ending June 30, 2011, the last year for which complete information is available.
DuPont found Tulsa averaged 21 reportable injuries per 100 employees - an Occupational Safety and Health Administration standard - for 2008 through 2010, a rate more than three times the national average for local government employees.
The Tulsa Fire Department averaged nearly 37 injuries per 100, or 2 1/2 times the national average. The Tulsa Police Department was nearly twice that of the national average.
The report also compared Tulsa to Oklahoma City and Lawton, with similar results.
"It confirmed a lot of things we did know," said Pam Marrs, the city's workers' compensation administrator. "Hopefully, it brought to the surface just how deep the situation is, how far-reaching through all the different departments."
The city paid $71,000 for the assessment.
Skeptics have suggested the city's higher injury rates have more to do with reporting than actual differences between Tulsa and other cities, but Senior Safety and Health Coordinator Eddy Tijerina said "their assessment was pretty spot on. ... They got a pretty accurate assessment of our employees and how they feel about safety."
Tijerina said "we've evolved quite a bit from where we were when I started with the city 25 years ago," but that safety remains a low priority for many workers and supervisors.
The survey involved data analysis, a document review that included records of 77 accident investigations and various training and safety manuals and documents, more than 2,700 written surveys, almost 200 personal interviews and field observations and employee discussions.
Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said they "have had no involvement at all with any safety activities." Fewer than one-quarter said safety infractions ever resulted in disciplinary action.
In its summary, the DuPont team says: "Some Supervisors/Managers feel that injuries are just the cost of doing business and expect you'll just get hurt on the job."
The report says that, except for the police, top-level supervisors spend little time in the field observing conditions and that "line Supervisors and Operations Management lack accountability" for injuries and safety. Further, it says managers and supervisors "have very limited understanding ... how safety should be managed" and "no knowledge of safety metrics nor understanding of OSHA classification guidelines."
Follow-up with employees on medical leave is weak, the assessment found, and a discrepancy between reportable injuries and workers' compensation claims suggests data collection flaws.
"We knew we had problems going in," said Vickie Beyer, director of the management review office. "As we peeled back the layers, we realized we weren't doing a very good job of reporting even to the department directors ... so in fairness to them, they just really didn't know all that was happening."
"While there are a lot of safety training opportunities and a lot of safety training that goes on, there's a lot of required safety training ... that's not necessarily being carried out by the departments," Marrs said.
"What's happening safety performance-wise within departments is not being communicated between themselves, from department to department, from work location to work location."
Some changes are already in place. The department heads' weekly meeting with Bartlett now begins with a safety report, and the new emphasis in upper management has awakened interest down the line.
Longer term, the city is looking at hiring a consultant - possibly DuPont - to implement the recommendations. The cost will be high - millions of dollars over several years - but the payoff in money saved and improved employee health could be several times greater, Bartlett said.
Among the steps being considered is connecting departmental budgets and individual performance reviews to safety records. Currently, each department pays about the same amount per person into the city's workers compensation pool. Bartlett thinks that should change.
And, he wants supervisors to "write up" workers who violate safety rules.
Mostly, though, he says he just wants the city employees to get hurt less.
"There has to be continuity," he said. "It has to keep going. It has to be every meeting, every day, every month, every year, same type of emphasis, to remind people. We cannot go through it for a few months, and then let it go away."
Original Print Headline: Painful problem
Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365
A Tulsa Public Works employee works on a water main break last week. The city of Tulsa reported rates of 21 recordable injuries for every 100 employees compared to an average rate of 6.1 per 100 employees for local government nationally. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World
Tulsa Public Works' Earnest Woodruff (left) and Tom Lawrence work on a water main break at 25th Street and Pittsburg Avenue last week. STEPHEN PINGRY / Tulsa World