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LABOR STRIKES CAN DELIVER GREATER WORKERS COMP RISKS

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The nation's package delivery system is on the road to normalcy with the resolution of the Teamsters' strike against United Parcel Service of America Inc., but the strike could result in a noticeable uptick in workers compensation claims.

UPS managers performing tasks they were unused to as the Atlanta-based company sought to continue some package delivery service, other shipping companies' employees who worked longer hours to handle an increased workload and employees of companies that were forced to lug packages to the local post office might be among the new workers comp claimants, according to consultants.

In a strike situation, "you have management personnel conducting activities they're not trained for or they haven't done for a long time, things that are highly physical activities that they're not used to performing," said Beth Voorhees, director of casualty claims and risk management consulting at Coopers & Lybrand L.L.P. in Chicago.

"In addition to that, working a lot of hours, people get tired and make mistakes, and that causes injuries as well," Ms. Voorhees said.

"I think we could expect a small increase from the norm," said Rebecca S. Bruce, president and chief executive officer of workers comp consultant the Aon Management Institute in Glastonbury, Conn.

Managers pressed into service moving packages "have no gradual buildup to the activities," Ms. Bruce said. "They don't have the gradual conditioning that's needed for these jobs."

"My first job was at UPS unloading trucks," she recalled. "I lasted two days."

In addition, Ms. Bruce said, "Anytime you have anybody who's unfamiliar with the job and unfamiliar with the routes, you're certainly subject to some additional injuries."

United Parcel Service officials would not comment on any of the workers comp issues related to the strike.

A strong awareness of safety issues among United Parcel Service managers may mitigate some of the strike's impact on workers comp claims, however.

While United Parcel Service is not one of Ms. Bruce's corporate clients, she said, "My understanding is they have a very extensive safety program."

Indeed, United Parcel Service is known to have a strong safety culture and is considered to be one of the safest package delivery companies worldwide.

Another possible source of a strike-related increase in workers comp claims is the potential for injuries to workers as a result of retaliation by strikers, Ms. Voorhees said.

Another is the possibility of employers using the workers compensation system for a little "financial planning" in advance of taking to the picket line.

"There is very often a trend toward workers who see a strike coming using the workers comp system to report injuries that purportedly happened before the strike deadline and use that as an alternative source of income during the strike," according to Ms. Voorhees.

"The other potential area is that you have the other companies who are making up the slack, their drivers working longer hours," Ms. Bruce said.

Many drivers and other employees may find themselves working a second shift to deal with the workload. "People who aren't accustomed to that are subject to fatigue and more injuries," Ms. Bruce said.

Herb Martin, risk/quality manager for Pat Salmon & Sons Inc., a Little Rock, Ark.-based shipping contractor for the U.S. Postal Service, said the United Parcel Service strike produced considerably more work for his company, along with some potential risk management concerns.

For the shippers that served as alternatives to United Parcel Service, the strike "may mean more business, but whether it's profitable business is yet to be known," Mr. Martin said, acknowledging the increased risk exposure that comes with the greater volume.

While the company is eager to please its customers, "at the same time, you want it to be a safe place to work," he said.

"You've got everybody in our organization all over operating at max," Mr. Martin said.

"Our concern is we don't want to put too much pressure on our risk management system," Mr. Martin said.

The only way that a company can minimize the risk of a sudden workload increase is to have a strategy in place before an emergency situation arises, Mr. Martin explained.

One key way of trying to manage exposures created by the increased workload is to adhere strictly to hiring standards while recruiting additional staff, Mr. Martin said.

Rushed to add drivers to handle the increased workload, there is a tendency to ease up on hiring criteria, he said.

"You just try to fight that as hard as you can. You just have to be more cautious to avoid failing in your selection process in hiring drivers," according to Mr. Martin.

"I think all of the contractors and all of the postal service workers have been putting in a lot more hours in the last few weeks to meet the demand and it's still out there," Mr. Martin said.

Even though the Teamsters' strike against United Parcel Service has been resolved, it will still be a few weeks before the nation's package delivery system returns to normal, Mr. Martin pointed out.

At UPS and the other delivery systems, "work ethic" might be a factor that could minimize injuries even as employees worked longer hours or performed different tasks.

"You're not dealing with people who don't want to work," Ms. Bruce said.

And, in the longer term, managers' role on the company's front lines during the strike could pay a dividend for UPS' workers compensation program, Ms. Bruce suggested.

"The manager might have a greater understanding of what their drivers do on a regular basis," she said.

"On a practical basis, our managers are more appreciative of what we do on a daily basis if they have to walk a mile in our shoes," she said.