Sunday, March 26, 2017
I had the good fortune to see an excellent panel presentation on “Injury Frequency Rates and Claim Trends” on March 18, during the inaugural College of Workers’ Compensation Symposium in Phoenix. Peter Rousmaniere showed slides persuasively demonstrating drops in the frequency of injuries and claims-filing over the last few decades, and predicting a substantial further fall-off in claims through the year 2022. Rousmaniere’s panel mates, Brad Ingram and Richard Thompson affirmed that the findings were consistent with their experience; and much of the attendees at the symposium appeared to be nodding in silent agreement. Perhaps predictably, an attendee’s hand shot up. “You know, this is pretty scary to those of us who make our living litigating workers’ compensation cases.” The comment, while refreshingly honest, would unlikely generate much sympathy among the general public. After all, most would agree that it is a great thing if human bodies are being torn asunder in the workplace with diminished frequency.
Of course, as Mr. Rousmaniere himself made clear, none of this is to suggest that those who are injured are being adequately compensated. Adequate compensation is, in my judgment, clearly not the rule. And if injuries really are diminishing a rather immediate question is why there should be workers’ compensation undercompensation in an era of apparent diminishing cost. Moreover, although Mr. Rousmaniere addressed the issue of under-claiming by claimants in his well-crafted model, this veteran of the working class (that is, me), has always suspected gross underreporting of workers’ compensation injuries. I have personally worked in blue collar workplaces (for my daily bread, not as an “experiment”) in which it was understood that you would be fired immediately if you filed a workers’ compensation claim. There is the letter of the law, the data of researchers, and the lived experience of the real world. Different things, all.
Leaving all that to one side, however, I wanted to say a word about the predictive power of injury models generally. President Trump’s proposed budget calls for a cut of $2.5 billion at the Department of Labor. One need not be a soothsayer to understand that OSHA, SSI, and Medicaid (among other programs) are on the verge of being pared down to virtual non-existence. I am similarly unenthusiastic concerning all federal programs dealing with workplace safety. Let us speak plainly. American manufacturing left the country to avoid regulation and unionized labor costs. As private sector union density approaches 6%, and safety regulations evaporate, it is not so hard to imagine an American workplace that is “re-dangerous.” Cars were no doubt being made dangerously in China, and if their manufacture is re-shored I should not be surprised to rediscover dangerous conditions. No doubt, robots and the like may improve the situation. But as last Friday’s Bloomberg piece—Inside Alabama’s Auto Jobs Boom: Cheap Wages, Little Training, Crushed Limbs—made abundantly clear, models of future injury rates will have to take into account the re-dangerous.
Michael C. Duff