Bend over, touch your toes, miss fewer days of work. 

When you’re hopping on and off a truck, loading garbage from 100,000 homes a week, injuries seem almost inevitablebut that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to prevent them. Just ask Louisville, Kentucky, whose public works department has cut its injury rate in half over the last two years.

In January 2012, the department’s rate of OSHA recordable injuriesserious injuries that keep employees away from work, limit their duties, or worsewas 31 percent, much higher than public works departments in comparable cities like Nashville or Charlotte. By January 2014, however, that rate has plunged to below 15 percent. How did they do it? Well, it starts with adding a stretching regimen.

Louisville Public Works employees stretching at 6 a.m.  (City of Louisville/Keith Hackett) 
Stretching indoors (City of Louisville/Keith Hackett) 

Starting at 6 a.m., Louisville public works employeeseven those in administrative rolesgather in a circle to prep their bodies for the day’s strenuous work. A designated leader then takes the group through a set of exercisesbend over, touch your toes, squats, twists, jumping jacks, etc. This all repeats at the beginning of each new shift.

While stretching was the department’s most conspicuous new strategy, it wasn’t the only measure they took to promote a culture of safety. They also established an Accident Review Committee to evaluate every injury and recommend preventative measures to department management, who then pass down final recommendations to staff. According to Keith Hackett, Division DIrector at Louisville Public Works, that helps keep everyone accountable, not just the employees out in the field.

Another crucial change was the institution of a modified duty policy, which allows injured employees to resume work much sooner. Rather than having someone with a broken foot stay at home for six to ten weeks, he or she can now return after just one week, for example, and help out with less-mobile administrative work. Unsurprisingly, this change has helped push down the department’s rate of time lost to injury from about 21 percent in January 2012 to about 6 percent in January 2014.

This whole set of changes was driven by Louisville’s recent focus on metrics-driven performance improvement, says Hackett. In January 2012, the city created an Office of Performance Improvement, out of which the LouieStat program was born. LouieStat coordinates regular meetings between leadership from each city department and the mayor to analyze and review relevant metrics.  

Public Works, the first department to go through the pilot program, started out with measuring and responding to OSHA recordable injuries and time lost to injury. Hackett says the LouieStat program made all the difference because it was a strong signal from the highest level in city government that department directors needed better information to make more informed decisions. 

Before, he says, it was like trying to win a ballgame without a playbook.

(h/t Harvard Ash Center)

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