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Bringing injured workers back for light duty a boost for county

An effort to bring injured Spokane County workers back to light duty is going to save an estimated $200,000 a year in the county’s self-insured workers’ compensation program.

About 50 workers a year are laid up and have to stay home because of on-the-job injuries, county statistics show.

Of those, the largest numbers come from the sheriff’s office, detention services and the county road department.

Last year, the county’s risk management department examined the cases to find out how they could bring injured employees back to light duty. Doing so reduces payments from the county’s workers’ compensation fund during their recovery.

The cost of time-loss claims by county employees rose from $89,000 in 2007 to $579,500 last year.

Five Spokane County sheriff’s deputies filed claims following a 2012 incident in which two deputies were shot. One of those deputies returned to duty after a short time and three others are back on the job on temporary modified duty. Three of the deputies suffered post-traumatic stress from the incident, said Steve Bartel, director of risk management for the county.

The fifth, former Deputy Eric Johnson, has gone on medical disability and left the force.

The claims for that incident exceeded $450,000, which was the deductible amount at the time for stop-loss insurance the county purchases for protection against high-cost claims, Bartel said.

Bartel and his claims team worked with supervisors, doctors and employees to find light-duty tasks employees could do while recovering from on-the-job injuries.

In the first six months of the effort, the workers’ compensation fund saved $100,000, and Bartel expects to double that by the end of the year.

He told county commissioners last week that studies show the sooner a worker gets back on the job, even if for light duty, the faster they recover.

The work by Bartel and his staff is part of a countywide strategy to implement “lean” management strategies that place an emphasis on improving service to clients and customers.