The University Record, June 24, 1998

Unit reduces to zero lost staff time due to injury

By Rebecca A. Doyle

A knife slips while a prep cook is chopping vegetables to include in the day's menu and he spends a week recovering from the injury before he can return to the same task.

• Pulling boxes from a shelf, a worker is bruised and strains muscles when one box catches on another and both tumble on top of him. He loses three days of work before he can return to a job that requires he lift heavy objects.

• While cleaning a room, a woman grabs the wrong end of a curling iron left on by a guest and is gone for two days before she can resume her regular job.

Three years ago, John Ryan was puzzled by a report from the Housing Accounting Office that showed costs for Workmen's Compensation claims "were going to go through the roof under the new accounting system." Incidents like those above kept his staff from coming to work and required the hiring of temporary staff to fill in for those injured on the job.

That was the initial motivation for Ryan, general manager of the Business School's Executive Residence, to take a good look at how to reduce lost work time and staff injuries. He found the numbers and got information on what was happening--injuries to his staff resulted in as many as 70 lost work days in a year.

But this wasn't enough to help him understand what was happening. Just trying to straighten out the reporting process didn't give him the answers he was looking for. "We still didn't know why people were getting hurt," Ryan says.

He contacted Marianne Berkey from the Employee Rehabilitation Program and Pam Barker, Occupational Safety and Environmental Health, to ask for their help finding out what was happening to his staff.

"Our staff were reporting back injuries, knife cuts, things were falling on them from shelving units. Nothing was being done to get them back to work," Ryan says.

That was in 1995.

In September of that year, Barker, Berkey and Ryan met to talk about what could be done to reduce lost work time for staff. As manager, his primary motivation at the time was to reduce the cost to his unit. After talking with Barker and Berkey, the three decided to take a careful look at what staff did and how they did it.

"We investigated every job in the facility," Ryan says. "We looked at the person in the job, the space they worked in and what equipment they used. What we found was that many were not trained in 'body mechanics'--how to lift and carry items.

"For example when they lifted a heavy pot to store on the shelf, they twisted and extended their bodies to place it," he continues. "That led to back injuries, and to lost time."

Barker and Berkey met with staff members and recorded their work on video as well as talking with them about what they did. For more than a year, they documented what jobs were done and how they were accomplished.

"The staff here were very interested," Berkey says, a fact that she attributes to Ryan's laying groundwork before she arrived with a video camera. "They wanted their jobs to be as safe and productive as they could be."

Acceptance by staff and a commitment from the management made her job easier and results were easily obtained, she says.

"We had a commitment to share the information we found with our staff and with the entire University," Ryan says. "Adjusting the work level, increasing training when needed and putting the emphasis on prevention are what this is about."

While the program is still evolving, being created as it progresses, Berkey notes, none of the more than 100 employees have lost work time over the last 18 months. "That is a measurable success."

In addition to preventing as many accidents as possible, Ryan says that the program involves cross-training staff members to be able to work at other stations when necessary. That way, if a kitchen staff member, for instance, has sustained a repetitive motion injury from chopping food the wrong way, she can still work at a different task while being trained to hold the knife differently.

Staff members have told him that, before the changes were made, they felt that management in other areas on campus as well as at the Executive Residence did not want staff returning until they "were 100 percent."

Ryan says he thinks other units could benefit from many of the measures the Executive Residence has instituted, and has made presentations to some of them with Berkey and Barker.

"Many of our staff are interested in making improvements," Ryan notes. "For example, there were two staff members in the coffee area who noticed that the design of the shelving was wrong for the way they worked. They proposed a change, and when it was approved it was a surprise to them. But that overcame their skepticism about the way we work now, and may lead to more suggestions."

Staff at the Executive residence includes employees who are in housekeeping, custodial, front desk clerking and office staff. All, Ryan says, recognize that they are the ones who do the work, not he. "My job is to help people get what they need to do the work," he says. "They are the ones who know best what needs to be changed, and they come to me now not to ask for help but to tell me ideas and ask only if I think there is a way to do it."

While staff at the Executive Residence have made great changes and reduced lost work time to zero, Ryan says it is important to remember that all places have accidents; no one is immune to that.

"What we have done is to find a way to allow employees to come to work even if they can't perform their regular jobs."

For more information, send e-mail to Berkey at mberkey@umich.edu.