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"We want employees to see us as the people who are going to take care of them. And when they go back to work, we want them going back to an environment where they feel safe."






A Watchful Eye on Workplace Safety

With Ed Bernacki’s up-front approach, employees can feel confident they’re in the right hands


A prestigious award presented here on Oct. 17 recognizes Ed Bernacki for a creative initiative designed to improve workplace safety and coordination of care.

When it comes to getting the job done, coasting is not Ed Bernacki’s style. That became evident soon after his 1991 arrival as executive director of Health, Safety and the Environment when he quickly overhauled the way Hopkins approaches workplace injuries and worker’s compensation issues.

Bernacki set as his primary goal finding ways to better serve Hopkins employees injured on the job. Too often, such injuries can create tension between employees worried about whether they are being treated fairly and organizations concerned about the high cost of worker’s compensation.

Bernacki aimed to cut through that tension by providing injured workers with quick decisions on compensation, with impeccable medical care from top Hopkins physicians, and with professional follow- up when they returned to work. Such service, he believed, would result in fewer contentious cases involving expensive legal proceedings.

“We needed to change our philosophy,” Bernacki says. “Everything should be managed for the injured employee. We want employees to see us as the people who are going to take care of them. And when they go back to work, we want them going back to an environment where they feel safe.”

Bernacki also focused on identifying potentially dangerous conditions and preventing injuries. Sometimes, this is as complex as insisting on state-of-the-art “controlled entry” laboratories that better protect workers from toxic fumes. Other times, it’s as simple as switching to a floor wax that leaves tile surfaces less slippery. It also involves having safety officers conduct immediate, authoritative investigations at the scene of workplace accidents.

The results of this service-first approach have been astounding. In 1991, Hopkins employees missed 35,000 days because of workplace injuries, a situation that cost the institution 81 cents for every $100 of its payroll. All told, Hopkins was paying more than $5 million in costs related to workplace injuries.

By 2002, that 81-cents figure had dropped down to just 37 cents for every $100 in payroll. The number of workplace injuries is down, too, even as the number of employees at Hopkins Medicine has jumped from 21,000 to 39,000. Estimates by outside auditors place the savings from Health, Safety and Environment programs since Bernacki’s arrival at more than $35 million.

Results like these tend to open some eyes. Recently, they helped Bernacki’s department win a prestigious award from the Occupational and Environmental Health Foundation and Pfizer Inc. In addition to recognizing excellence, the Innovations in Occupational and Environmental Health [IOEH] award supports creative new initiatives to boost worker safety. A $25,000 grant will support ongoing efforts to develop a promising new Web-based system for tracking worker’s compensation cases.

Now in the testing phase, the system aims to ensure that Health, Safety and Environment teams respond to incidents at distant sites such as Broadway Services and Howard County General as effectively as they do closer to their home base in East Baltimore.

“How do you manage a population that’s dispersed? We want people in Howard County to have the same assurances as people here in East Baltimore,” says Bernacki. “We want them to know that someone is looking at their case right away, that they’ll know as soon as possible whether their claim is going to be accepted, and if they will get that next paycheck.”

The program is based on a new software package that brings every facet of workplace-safety cases into a single, Web-based document. Previously, safety investigations, worker’s compensation claims and medical case management were all tracked separately. This created a lag time between developments in an individual case and the updating of all of its associated files.

Once the software is perfected, the next step will be to see how much of an impact it has on the overall picture of workplace safety at Hopkins. “If we do a better job, by working more effectively together as a group, then people will get treatment faster and come back to work faster. Investigations will be completed faster, and future injuries will be prevented faster,” Bernacki contends.

“I think this approach has implications for all of medicine, not just for people on the job,” Bernacki says. “One of the things we do here is direct people to really wonderful physicians. We’re like an insurance company, but one that’s extremely proactive and one that doesn’t look over our doctors’ shoulders.” These same principles, he adds, could perhaps be applied to group medical coverage.

Bernacki’s approach now is winning converts beyond the bounds of Hopkins. In recent years his office has taken the “Hopkins model” into the outside world, helping to set up and run workplace safety operations for other hospitals and companies like Pepsi. Fees for those services now are bringing more than $2 million a year to the institution.

Those are the kinds of results that Bernacki has achieved time and again in the past 12 years—boosting the Hopkins’ bottom line by serving its employees better.

-Jim Duffy




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