Los Angeles Fire Department patch and badge. Photo by John Schreiber.
Los Angeles Fire Department patch and badge. Photo by John Schreiber.

Police and firefighter work injury costs have risen 35 percent in the last five years, making up more than 60 percent of all city workers’ compensation expenses, according to audit findings released Thursday by the City Controller’s Office.

The Los Angeles Fire Department and Los Angeles Police Department’s workers’ compensation costs in fiscal year 2013-14 totaled $141 million, which Controller Ron Galperin said is enough to pay the salaries of 2,300 entry-level police officers or firefighters.

Galperin said the city could potentially cut costs by $28 million per year for police and fire by taking steps such as reducing claims for everyday injuries that occur as a result of sports, and back injuries.

“We must get the spiraling costs under control,” Galperin said during a City Hall news conference.

A total of 29,000 claims were filed by city employees and $800 million awarded between fiscal year 2010-11 and fiscal year 2013-14, with more than 60 percent of the claims coming from fire and police, according to the audits.

Galperin said his audits found there has not been enough training focused on reducing strain injuries, such as classes on how to lift weights safely. He also said there are either not enough health and wellness programs being offered or they are not well-attended by workers. Much of the training focuses more on things such as how to use a self-contained breathing apparatus, he said.

Galperin recommended that the departments limit the types of sports employees can participate in to those that are less likely to cause injuries. He also urged city leaders to figure out ways to put workers’ compensation costs back into department budgets as an incentive to reduce costs, and urged departments to use more data in handling work injuries.

Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas said he is using the audit of his agency “as a roadmap for addressing this very important issue.”

Terrazas said he has already started taking steps to lower workers’ compensation costs, such as using the department’s new FireStatLA data-analysis program to track injuries and costs, instructing supervisors to “drill to the root causes and come up with some solutions” to the rising expenses and forming a “firefighter fitness work group” to keep employees healthy and injury-free.

LAPD Assistant Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur said the audit is also helping her department turn its attention more to reducing the number of repetitive and strain injuries, and not just focusing on bringing down costs from police use- of-force or traffic accidents.

The department began looking at its workers’ compensation costs two years ago and found that one of the problems has been officers being unable to return to work because their medical procedures were being delayed.

The police department has made “real big strides in that, and this audit really helps us focus,” MacArthur said.

Galperin’s audits also used a confidential, voluntary survey to find out if there is a culture in the police and fire departments of filing questionable claims. One-third of firefighters who turned in the surveys said they knew of co-workers who filed problematic claims, while 45 percent of those surveyed in the police department said there were too many workers’ compensation claims filed.

Terrazas said he would speak to employees about the “importance” of changing any culture of filing possibly false claims, but he said the number of claims being filed might be “confused with a culture of abuse.”

Firefighters are encouraged to report physical discomfort, such as a “twinge in your back,” after coming back from an assignment. This is done as a precaution in case a more permanent problem develops, he said.

Terrazas said if the data were more closely examined, it is possible many of those claims did not actually result in time off for workers, Terrazas said.

— City News Service

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