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Both Wis., Minn. see decline in workers’ comp claims

William Morris
BridgeTower Media Newswires

The frequency of workers’ compensation filings has decreased in both Wisconsin and Minnesota in recent years, although the exact cause of the decline in this state is not yet entirely clear.

Wisconsin employers caught a break last summer when it was announced that the premiums they pay to treat on-the-job injuries would be declining by 8.46 percent on average starting on Oct. 1. For construction companies specifically, the decrease was 8.28 percent on average.

Bernard Rosauer, president of the Wisconsin Compensation Rating Bureau, said before that dip, rates had held steady in this state for decades.

“I think what we’ve seen over the last 50 years has been, on average, a 1.4 percent change,” he said.

Rosauer said it’s too early to know exactly what has caused the decline. Because injury claims have become less frequent, some will no doubt want to argue that workplaces are simply become safer, he said.

Rosauer said it’s more complicated than that. Another factor could be changes in employers’ and workers’ attitudes.

“Maybe more people are pleased to have a job and less likely to take time off for a small injury,” Rosauer said.

Meanwhile in Minnesota, workplaces appear to be a much safer on average today than they were 20 years ago.

In fact, from 1996 to 2016, paid workers’ compensation claims fell by 54 percent, according to a report released earlier this month by the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry. Workers’ comp insurance premium rates in 2018 are down 51 percent since 1996 and are at their lowest point in that 22-year span.

Ken Peterson, commissioner of the labor and industry department, attributed the decline in claims in part to advances in technology. But the primary cause seems to be employers’ workplace-safety campaigns, he said. Safety is much more of a priority now than it was during his previous stint as a commissioner in the 1980s.

“Nobody ever wanted anybody to get hurt, but I think the attitude has changed tremendously in that safety is a higher priority than ever before among senior management,” he said.

Peterson said construction has seen some of the most remarkable improvements. He attributed the results to a variety of changes: the use of better training and signs, hiring of more safety personnel, setting up of safety committees, and contractors’ tendency to tolerate fewer accidents from subcontractors, among others.

In Wisconsin, the safety record has not been quite as exemplary. On-the-job injuries increased from 3.6 for every 100 workers in 2015 to 3.8 in 2016, according to a report released by the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene in February. Wisconsin employers reported 82,700 injuries and illnesses in 2016, up from 78,800 the year before.

Back in Minnesota, a separate report from the department of labor and industry found that there were five recordable injuries for every 100 construction workers in Minnesota in 2016, including 2.6 injuries per 100 resulting in lost work days, job transfers or job restrictions. In 1996, according to the U.S. Bureau for Labor Statistics, Minnesota construction workers suffered 12.6 injuries or illnesses for every 100 workers. Of those, six per 100 resulted in lost work days.

Large contractors are leading the way on safety, Peterson said. Smaller companies with fewer than 20 workers still tend to report higher injury rates, he added.

“They don’t have the resources to focus on safety, or don’t think they do,” Peterson said. “… In construction, that’s an ongoing problem, trying to reach those people. But the larger firms … I’ve been very impressed.”

Brad Lehto, chief of staff for the Minnesota AFL-CIO, said credit also due to state and federal safety regulators, not merely for their stricter enforcement of safety regulations but also the additional effort they have put into helping employers identify and eliminate hazards.

“Employers can have them come in and go through the workplace and say what’s safe, what isn’t, and a lot of employers do that,” he said.

As claims have declined in Minnesota, so too have insurance premiums. Workers’ compensation premium rates amounted to $1.24 per $100 of payroll in 2016, down from $1.85 in 1996.

The decline in Minnesota workers’ compensation claims mirrors a national trend. Craig Anderson, vice president of actuarial services at the Minnesota Workers’ Compensation Insurers Association, said that Minnesota and 38 other states covered by the National Council on Compensation Insurance have seen indemnity cases decline by about 4 percent each year from 1996 to 2016.

During the past five years, Minnesota claims have fallen by about 5 percent a year, Anderson said in an email.

Although improved workplace safety is not the sole cause of the decline in claims and costs, Peterson praised employers and insurers for their efforts.

“People are just more cognizant of (safety) than they’ve ever been,” he said.       

– Dan Shaw of The Daily Reporter contributed to this article

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