Examiner Editorial: Less workers’ comp means more gardeners

Workers’ compensation costs devoured $3.5 million from the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department’s battered budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year, after cutbacks had already forced layoffs of 16 recreation leaders. One out of every five employees in the department filed a workers’ compensation injury claim — and it was even worse 10 years ago when one in three employees claimed workers’ comp.

With 850 employees, Recreation and Park has about 3.4 percent of The City’s work force, yet last year it accounted for some 7 percent of San Francisco’s $41.9 million spending for fiscal 2008-09 workers’ compensation. But in a hopeful development, new General Manager Phil Ginsburg is making it a personal goal to decrease the department’s new injuries by 50 percent.

Accomplishing that would save between $300,000 and $400,000 yearly, which “essentially translates to five extra gardeners” — who are direly needed, since San Francisco has about 200 gardeners less than the national standard.

As The City’s former director of the Human Resources Department, Ginsburg is experienced at analyzing workers’ compensation statistics. It is no surprise that most of the Recreation and Park on-the-job injuries are from lifting or body positioning accidents of the nearly 400 employees doing physical fieldwork — gardeners, maintenance workers and heavy equipment operators. Tree-toppers cutting high branches are at particular risk.

During an average month, anywhere from seven to 10 of the approximately 850 Rec and Park employees stay home every month because of work-related injuries. Ginsburg’s team is developing a multi-pronged plan to reduce that total. Starting in January, the department will have a Safety Advisory Committee that holds awareness meetings and enforces a rule that supervisors must teach staff the lessons learned after each  injury.

Temporary assignments are being actively set up for injured employees able to work light-duty desk jobs, perhaps just part-time during recovery. Due to this spring’s layoffs, the department has a sizeable data entry backlog that light-duty temps are now helping reduce. Early reactions from participating employees have been surprisingly positive — many prefer having somewhere to go during the workday.

The underlying hope is to raise safety consciousness within the Recreation and Park culture. Alternative solutions are being required for higher-hazard tasks. Just this month, continuing to prune the aging trees on the steep hillside below Coit Tower was deemed too risky, so the trees were removed instead. The hillside neighbors actually paid for easier-maintenance replacement trees and volunteered help for the replanting.

Ginsburg admits it will be a challenge to achieve his goal of reducing the department’s work injuries by half. But if he succeeds or even comes reasonably close, it will be an important model for every other San Francisco city agency.

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