By Mark Drury, Republished with Permission
Washington, D.C., is a city of monuments. Practically every American who’s ever played a significant role in the life of the country can be found etched in marble or granite there. A few miles south of the District, the Commonwealth of Virginia begins and through the suburbs of Alexandria to the Old South capital of Richmond to the Blue Ridge Mountains of the western state, hundreds of thousands of school children gather each day to learn the story of their nation.
Each of the school districts educating these children (called ‘divisions’ in state law) is charged with the responsibility of keeping students, teachers, staff and administrators safe. But, until a decade ago, school safety was largely an afterthought in many schools. The Virginia School Boards Association (VSBA), which provided the self-insured risk pool for school divisions, could see that in the numbers.
“Ten years ago, our self-insured pools were close to insolvency,” said David Smith, VSBA’s director of insurance services. “Claim costs were high, accidents were frequent and the financial impact on our schools was taking a serious toll across the Commonwealth.”
Only 15 of Virginia’s 134 school divisions took part in VSBA’s workers’ compensation group. Twenty-five were members of the property/casualty pool. Losses threatened to turn the pools’ balance sheets upside down. VSBA Insurance Services was staring at a $1 million deficit. That’s when the organization launched a turnaround campaign with profound results.
“Today our pools are financially sound, employee injuries have dramatically decreased, transportation incidents are at an all-time low and we could not ask for a better record of risk management improvement in school safety.” said Smith.
In 2003, VSBA board members turned to what they euphemistically called “the two Davids” to guide the change. First, Smith, a bright Hampden-Sydney graduate with a track record of successfully insuring municipalities in Virginia and David Brooks, a Murray State (KY) University graduate who leads an energetic, highly successful school safety consulting firm based in Nashville, TN.
“It wasn’t just about saving money,” Smith said. “Every claim can potentially take a key staff or faculty member out of action. We want the best teacher in the classroom, the best driver behind the wheel.” Smith said board members knew lost productivity hampered gains in Virginia’s schools. To be the best in the nation meant becoming the safest as well. VSBA’s goal was to create a “culture of safety” in each member school division.
A study by VSBA determined half of all school injuries were to teachers and the majority of those injuries were preventable. “People don’t realize the degree to which teachers are susceptible to accidents, but teachers do a lot of lifting, carrying and working at heights to run their classes,” said Dave Sulzen, VSBA Insurance Services board chair. The organization learned teachers are injured at a much higher rate than support staff in U.S. schools. Last year, nearly a quarter of all teachers in America were injured.
VSBA immediately launched an aggressive safety training series specifically addressing risks to teachers. State-of-the- art programs were developed including live presentations, online safety videos, safety committees, safety assessments for each school and consistent emphasis on the importance of safety. The e-learning safety training uniquely covered safety topics such as slips, trips, falls, back injury preven- tion, hazard communication and personal protective equipment. More than 20,000 educators have completed the personalized, web-based safety training that was rolled out two years ago. The program has had remarkable results, with claims dropping by as much as 25 percent in a single year.
The initiative wasn’t limited to teachers, though.
“Our bus drivers transport children millions of miles each year in unbelievable driving conditions,” Sulzen said.“School nutrition employees are serving millions of meals each year in the midst of heat and sharp objects. Custodial and maintenance staffs deal with chemicals, work around many different types of energy sources, work at heights and handle trash and materials to keep our schools running safely for our educators and students. The potential for injury among support staff employees is very real and had to be addressed.”
“Many school divisions don’t have full-time risk managers or safety professionals to properly and effectively train staff to reduce accidents,” Brooks said. “We stepped up the volume and intensity of many types of training to improve the culture of safety. VSBA launched customized, on-site safety training for custodial, maintenance, school nutrition, vocational-technical, transportation, teachers and special needs teachers.” VSBA has even been invited to conduct safety training for students taking part in vocational-technical classes as well.
Brooks believes one of the keys to the program’s success is incorporating safety into the culture of each school division. He believes each teacher
and staffer must take ownership and constantly be on the lookout for risks. The best way to do that, Brooks said, is for school division leaders to train employees in the areas where injuries are occurring, use values-based safety training to teach employees to embrace the culture of safety and reinforce it on a consistent basis.
“Our people and our students are the most valuable resource we have,” said Sulzen. “Keeping them safe is our most important responsibility.”
Since 2003, VSBA has conducted thousands of safety training sessions for more than 50,000 employees in Virginia. In addition, most VSBA school divisions have created safety teams in the wake of training to monitor and reinforce safe behavior.
When auto accidents and workers’ compensation claims began to decline, VSBA took the message to statewide meetings of school superintendents, school board members, plant managers, pupil transportation officials, school business officials and the Virginia chapter of PRIMA. VSBA instituted an awards program recognizing school systems making major improvements in transportation safety and promoting awareness of employees working safely.
“Superintendents have responded to our safety programs and we can see the success in reduced claims and the calls to join the program have risen dramatically. The program doubled in size by 2008 and we believe better service was the key” Smith said.
Weather, school maintenance budgets and the age of fleets can all impact claims but, after nearly a decade of working with clients to help them understand the importance of risk reduction and cost control, VSBA’s efforts have paid off. In 2011, auto claims costs per vehicle in client school systems were four times lower than 2002 levels and lost-time workers’ compensation claims were being filed at the lowest rate in the program’s history.
VSBA’s turnaround is starting to get noticed nationwide. “We’ve had several other states contact us to ask about the improvements we’ve made to service delivery,” said Smith. “I tell them the key takeaway to what we’ve done in Virginia is to find the very best people you can to help you address the problem and take care of servicing your clients. If you do that, everything else falls into place.”
Smith admits school systems could probably find less expensive insurance in the marketplace, but not with the same level of training and service they’ve received from VSBA. To school administrators, the strong message that the school system cares about the safety of its workers and its students is well worth the cost.
Brooks feels the steps taken in Virginia can translate to other states as well. “VSBA’s success isn’t unique to us, any school system in the country can have the same results,” he said. “You need experts in the field, a consistent focus on organizational change and the zeal of a missionary.”
Mark Drury is the president of Adeo Strategies, a marketing and communications consulting firm based in Nashville, Tenn.