Legislation alone won't solve this city problem.
Workers' compensation cost for the city totaled more than $27 million from 2008-2010.
But while recently passed reform at the state level will make sweeping changes to the way claims are handled, there's a reason Mayor Dewey Bartlett made it a point last month to hold a news conference announcing a renewed push to decrease worker injuries.
Out of every 100 employees, a whopping 21 injury incidents took place yearly, according to an average of the rates from 2008-2010. The number far exceeded average injury rates for other cities. Oklahoma City, for example, had a rate just less than half of Tulsa's for the same time period.
Taking notice of Tulsa's new safety focus -- and lending a hand -- are state authorities.
"We helped support the kickoff of this initiative, and we have attended a couple of meetings with them, just to kind of support their effort and just serve as a resource of information for them," said Diana Jones, director of the Public Employee Occupational Safety & Health unit within the state's Department of Labor.
For the city, it's admittedly a financial issue. Workers' compensation claim amounts totaled $4.7 million in 2010, for example, which was actually a substantial decrease from the $8.4 million in claims during 2007.
"We want to definitely get our claims down, and we want to create a better culture for employees," said Kim MacLeod, director of the city's communications department.
The effort has been dubbed a "Safety Transformation" project by the city, and Jones used the phrase "complete culture change" when describing Tulsa's approach.
"I would say this is probably the largest initiative that I've seen taken, and I'm hoping that they're going to have real positive results from it and we can take lessons learned from what they've done and share that," she said.
However, Michael Rider, president of a local union that represents many city workers, described ongoing safety concerns.
In an email, Rider wrote about how the union recently called for a Safety Day and found that "several hundred" city vehicles and pieces of equipment "were not up to legal standards for safe use."
"We found poor conditions to be a bit shocking," Rider wrote in a statement.
Improving safety may be easier said than done. MacLeod said one approach undertaken by the city involves seeking help from private industry. A representative from Covanta -- the waste disposal company whose waste-to-energy plant is the endpoint for Tulsa household trash -- serves on a safety steering committee coming up with new safety ideas.
"They have a really great track record and a good program for safety, and it's resulted in reduced workers' compensation claims," MacLeod said of Covanta.
Despite the presence of the company on the committee, MacLeod said the city has no formal contract with Covanta to help improve city safety.
The city instead so far has been taking an in-house approach. The safety committee is otherwise comprised of city workers, and MacLeod said another key figure is Eddy Tijerina, a longtime city worker who began as a gardener but now oversees the city's safety programs.
"He is still designing a program for the whole city as kind of a standardized program, and we meet on a weekly basis," MacLeod said.
One specific goal that's emerged is to, within a year, reduce by 10 percent the number of incidents reported to workplace safety authorities, MacLeod said.
So what's changed?
MacLeod said meetings in all departments now begin with talk about safety. In an email, she described a timeline for taking the planning and implementing new safety efforts.
Beginning in June, "Eddy will drive out two processes to two implementation teams to use as pilot programs for reducing injuries," MacLeod wrote.
As far as how things will continue, MacLeod wrote that the safety steering committee will "morph into a more permanent committee that makes recommendations to the mayor on the processes and policies for implementation of programs." While currently Covanta is the only private entity on the committee, MacLeod wrote that the city has requested advice from others in private industry, including CamGlass, which is owned by Jim Cameron, a member of the Tulsa Metropolitan Utility Authority.
MacLeod noted that some jobs are more dangerous than others, a point well-established in a 2012 city report examining workers' compensation claims by department.
From 2001 through the first few days of December in 2011, the report tallied claims by department. Fire department employees made 6,231 claims, far more than police (4,736 claims), public works employees (4,098) or parks workers (1,213).
The report also spelled out how workers most often become injured -- and, separately, which circumstances lead to the costliest workers' compensation claims.
Out of a total of about 18,000 claims, roughly 43 percent could be attributed to a "strain." But motor vehicle accidents had the costliest claims on average, about $6,900.
MacLeod wrote that the city focused last month on improving vehicle safety by talking about what's known as distracted driver awareness.
"We have presentations and training information and messages that went out to employees," MacLeod wrote. She shared a video produced by the city that showed Gina Harris, a speaker on the dangers of distracted driving, addressing an auditorium filled with city workers. Harris' 19-year-old daughter, Brittanie, died in a car accident. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, Brittanie Harris had been speaking on a cell phone when she lost control of her vehicle.
Other cities have also at times taken a hard look at workers' compensation costs. Last month, the Philadelphia city comptroller blamed "excessive physical therapy" as one significant cause of a 26 percent spike in that city's workers' compensation costs over the last three years.
So far, Tulsa leaders haven't gone so far as to blame any particular treatment for their costs. While the internally-produced report also noted that 28 workers had made 20 or more claims over the course of a nearly 10-year period, claims by those 28 workers only accounted for less than 0.7 percent of the total claim dollar amounts over that same time period.
Jones said Tulsa is far from unique among Oklahoma cities in being concerned about how worker safety affects the budget.
Cities "know if they're not spending money on people getting hurt, that money can be spent on more training, better equipment," Jones said. "They can use those resources more wisely."
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