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It's Safer to Protect and Serve

Police, firefighters report fewer job-related injuries. L.A. gets a $36million windfall from the drop in claims.

October 11, 2005|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles police last year reported the fewest injuries on the job in a decade, filing 3,096 workers' compensation claims, a 27% drop from five years ago.

Firefighters, another group of workers prone to accidents, are also reporting fewer injuries, as are workers in other city agencies. Overall, a 13% citywide decline in workers' compensation claims from last year has meant an unexpected $36 million windfall to city coffers.

No one seems to know exactly what is driving the downward trend. Various theories credit a younger or more careful police force, department efforts to root out fraud or the benefits of exercise.

Whatever the cause, "it is all good things for the moment," said Tom Coultas, assistant general manager of the city's Personnel Department. "Claims are down, costs are down, the amount of time that people are injured and off duty is down, and productive work is up."

Injuries are a big problem in the LAPD, the city's largest department. Nearly one out of three officers files a workers' compensation claim each year. The financial liability is even greater than that derived from police misconduct cases, although the latter get more attention. For example, the $65 million the city has paid on lawsuits related to the Rampart police corruption scandal is dwarfed by the several hundred million it has paid on police workers' compensation claims over the last five years.

The skyrocketing costs of workers' compensation claims, driven in part by rising medical bills, prompted changes in state law that have reduced payouts. Unlike many businesses, the city is self-insured, so it benefits directly from reduced workers' compensation costs.

The changes restricted return visits to chiropractors and physical therapists and tightened limits on emotional-stress-related claims, Coultas said. Such claims constituted 2% of police workers' compensation claims five years ago, but are less than 1% today.

Whether the new limits are squeezing injured workers is in dispute. Barry Hedberg of the Los Angeles Firemen's Relief Assn., a medical insurer for firefighters, said retirees have complained about reduced benefits, and the organization is paying more in medical claims to members because of delays and disagreements over workers' compensation.

Mark Hayes of the statewide lobbying group VotersInjuredatWork.org said the city "is seeing savings because they are denying medical care and taking benefits away from injured workers."

But city officials say lawsuits contesting workers' compensation payouts have dropped. And Police Protective League President Bob Baker said that police officers represented by his union have few concerns about reduced benefits.

Changes in the workplace may explain part of the cost savings. The Fire Department, for example, has taken new steps to combat an epidemic of bad backs in its fire stations, hiring Cal State Northridge professor Steven Loy, an exercise physiologist, to give its exercise programs a scientific examination. Loy has designed new workouts to make firefighters supple, not just beefy. There is also new emphasis on endurance and abdominal strength.

For its part, the LAPD has cracked down on workers' compensation fraud in its ranks. Prosecutors recently won the first criminal conviction against an LAPD officer for trying to cheat the system.

The conviction, LAPD officials say, has deterred others from using the system for their own gain, and may help explain why the largest decline in LAPD injuries is in the category of overexertion -- commonly soft-tissue injuries that are vaguely defined, impossible to see -- and, perhaps, easy to fake.

In addition, LAPD commanders have been working harder in recent years to reduce the number of officers out due to "injured on duty" status, going so far as to call and visit injured workers at home to convince them to return to light-duty jobs.

The effort reflects Police Chief William J. Bratton's desire to get more work from a police force that he says is too small. But Capt. Joan McNamara of the LAPD's Newton Division, who has been especially successful in bringing injured officers back to work, said a benefit is that others on the force view medical leaves differently once word spreads that your boss may call you at home.

However, LAPD commanders are careful to say they think fraud accounted for only a very small portion of claims.

Improved safety, they say, may be a bigger factor in the decline. LAPD officers were 9% less likely to get hurt in car accidents last year than five years before, and 22% less likely to get hurt in violent encounters with suspects, according to figures from the city's Personnel Department.

Violence, once the second-largest source of LAPD injuries, is now the fourth-largest cause. Cumulative injuries, many of them back injuries caused by wearing heavy Sam Browne gun belts, are now the second-largest source. The LAPD recently approved the use of a lighter belt to try to reduce the problem.

General overexertion, unrelated to violent encounters or car accidents, remains by far the largest source of injuries for LAPD officers. The category includes hundreds of sprained knees, pulled shoulders and strained backs -- many from weightlifting in department gyms or training exercises.

Changes in training and better gym equipment have helped reduce these injuries, officials say. But they are still common enough to suggest that for all the dangers of enforcing the law, it is exercise and training regimens that are most likely to harm officers, they add.

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