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SANTA MONICA, Calif.-Continental Airlines Inc. has slashed its occupational injury costs by 45% in less than two years by cultivating a workers compensation and safety mind-set that fosters communication.

The program, which also incorporates file reviews, faster claims reporting, aggressive case management and return to work, medical bill audits and increased use of company clinics, was developed by Adam W. Potter shortly after he joined the Houston-based airline in 1995 as managing director of risk management and ground safety.

"Continental was spending as much on workers compensation costs as it did for a brand-new 757 aircraft," estimated Mr. Potter, who now serves as a consultant to the airline. "Two years ago, we downsized to a much smaller aircraft: a brand-new 737. And today we're spending the equivalent of a regional jet."

"In a very short period of time, we were able to decrease our workers compensation costs by 45% and reduce on-the-job injuries by 54%," Mr. Potter told those attending a luncheon at the Fifth Annual Business Insurance Workers Compensation Conference last week in Santa Monica, Calif.

Mr. Potter began the daunting challenge of turning around Continental's workers compensation claims experience by conducting a thorough analysis of the company's pre- and post-injury management process.

"This process consisted of not only reviewing policies, programs and procedures, interviewing all levels of management and non-management employees, conducting focus groups and surveys, but also performing various job functions as well," he explained.

"For example, I actually loaded and unloaded cargo from aircraft, marshaled aircraft into position and ran ground support equipment. I assisted flight attendants in flight and sat with pilots in the cockpit to understand how they actually performed the job. But they never actually let me fly the plane," he quipped.

After assessing the problem, Mr. Potter developed a plan with the primary objective of reducing workers compensation costs and injuries by at least 25%.

A key element of the plan was improving communication.

Starting with a simple letter addressed to employees at home, followed by articles published in every employee newsletter, daily bulletin and company magazine, the objective of the communication strategy was to ensure that all 20,000 of Continental's employees knew, understood and supported the plan, Mr. Potter said.

The communication strategy was an "instant hit," he recalled. "Employees knew the company's cost of workers compensation, how it affected their individual profit sharing, the number of employees injured on a daily basis and, most important, what the company was going to do about it."

Then the work began: Mr. Potter's team reviewed more than 1,600 open workers compensation files.

"We adjusted reserves, closed files and settled claims. It didn't take long for the word to get out that we were actually doing something," he said. "And, while some employees were not overjoyed with the results, all employees were pleased that after a long period of dormancy something was actually being done."

In addition to the initial file review, Mr. Potter set up ongoing audits of a large sample of open and closed claims files.

Next, Continental's convoluted claims-reporting system, which had an average reporting time of three months, was scrapped.

"Previously, a lengthy form was filed by the supervisor of the injured employee or a specific point person in the department, and then either called, faxed or mailed in. We had two individuals answering the phone and entering information," Mr. Potter said.

Now, under the new system, Continental uses electronic incident reports taken by a third-party administrator available 24 hours a day.

To ensure that claims are reported quickly, "we took a unique approach: Employees became responsible for reporting their own claims," he said.

To assist in the notification process, the TPA sends voice mail to each supervisor and the supervisor's manager each time an employee calls in a claim.

After each claim is received, it is assigned to one of two in-house nurse case managers for up to 14 days. Cases taking longer to resolve are referred to outside case management.

Previously, "we were spending over $1.2 million in outside case management," Mr. Potter said.

Throughout the case management process, registered nurses specializing in rehabilitation services maintain contact with injured employees, provide physician referral when necessary and help explain diagnosis and treatment.

"The nurses let the employees know that we're concerned about their condition and want to ensure they are being treated by the proper physician," Mr. Potter said.

The objective of the case management process is to ensure appropriate treatment and expedite recovery and return to work, because "we understand that saving $1 in medicals may cost upwards of $10 in lost time," he added.

Continental also regularly reviews bills submitted by providers to ensure they are reasonable and meet fee schedules.

The airline now offers employees access to treatment at four company-owned occupational clinics-three of which are open 24 hours-staffed by doctors, nurses, para-medics and physical therapists all focusing on employees' "total health," he said. Employees can use the clinics for occupational and non-occupational illnesses and injuries without copayments or deductibles.

The objective is to make employees comfortable with the company clinics so that they have no qualms going to them when they have work-related injuries, Mr. Potter said.

Working with Continental's legal, human resources and various operations departments, Mr. Potter also developed a tough policy that addresses length of time on transitional duty, accommodating employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act, light-duty assignments and other relevant issues. The policy also provides for monitoring every employee on transitional duty for up to 90 days.

Continental has revised its subrogation policies and is working with its TPA to develop a system to encourage recovery from third parties and second-injury funds when possible.

The airline also met with more than 75 of its workers comp defense lawyers to ensure uniform and fair treatment of injured workers. The objective was to dissuade claimants from hiring attorneys of their own, Mr. Potter pointed out.

Continental's new workers compensation program also altered the company's injury allocation system so that departments not only are held responsible for claims, but also receive credit for helping return an injured worker to the job quickly.

Finally, the workers compensation group and the safety group-two groups that typically are rivals in most organizations-were combined under one umbrella.

"This seemingly small task was a pivotal point to our turnaround," Mr. Potter said. "We now have the safety and workers compensation groups working together. Each director understands the issues, obstacles and programs of the other. In addition, the group works on tasks together."

The collaboration enabled Continental to revamp its accident investigation process to focus more on determining the root cause of injuries and eliminating hazards so that injuries do not recur.

"For many years, our safety group focused only on discipline and blame," Mr. Potter said. "Employees were punished for causing damage to company equipment. Investigations were not even completed for on-the-job injuries."

It seemed as if Continental cared more about its equipment than about its employees, Mr. Potter said. But, "by investigating both injuries and mishaps, not only does it show that we value employees as the No. 1 asset of the organization, it has been very effective in drastically reducing injuries."