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April 24, 2017 On the record

On the record: Michael Bourque on navigating new workplace challenges

Photo / Tim Greenway Michael Bourque, senior vice president for external affairs at MEMIC, says employers are starting to focus more on 'behavior-based' safety.

Michael Bourque, senior vice president of external affairs at the Maine Employers Mutual Insurance Co., better known as MEMIC, is busy navigating changes in laws, including those affecting marijuana use, and workplace guidelines.

MEMIC was formed in 1993 after the state's sweeping workers' compensation law changes of 1992, and provides workers' compensation insurance for 21,000 firms representing roughly 400,000 employees in the Northeast. Mainebiz recently spoke with him. An edited transcript follows.

Mainebiz: What new challenges are there for Maine employers because of recent issues like marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis?

Michael Bourque: [Those issues are] a minefield for employers, health care providers and insurers. On one hand, you have an expansion in marijuana as a legal drug while there is, quite rightly, a contraction and more stringent regulation of prescribed opioids. On the opioid side, it is absolutely the right thing to do. These drugs are dangerous and have been over-prescribed. With marijuana, there's the contradiction between state and federal laws, with some indication from the administration in Washington that it will not be as permissive as the past administration. That conflict has been part of the concern within the workers' compensation world, where there is an appeal pending at the Maine Supreme Court regarding an order for an employer to reimburse a worker for medical marijuana, which he indicates is effective at treating pain from his workplace injury. And we don't have a sense yet of what regulations may be put in place regarding recreational marijuana.

Mainebiz: Are there other recent workplace safety issues that weren't concerns in the past?

MB: I think the issue now is that there is an expectation that there will be greater social acceptance of marijuana use. These kinds of social issues never stop at the door to the workplace. So, while drug use — and marijuana is the most prevalent — has long been a concern in workplaces, the sheer volume of potential users is where we expect to see the difference.

Mainebiz: How does the increased focus on wellness programs in the workplace tie in with workplace safety?

MB: Since MEMIC's inception, we recognized costs could not come down without improving safety. That meant changing attitudes and, ultimately, workplace culture. This had an impact far beyond just safety. Positive team environments where employees feel valued improves not just safety, but leads to more innovation, efficiency and productivity. [Valuing employees] can lead to a healthier work environment mentally and physically, and make Maine businesses more competitive. The state's historically low unemployment, means fierce competition to attract and retain the best employees, so employers are investing even more in workplace culture, health and safety. [An older, more sedentary workforce] leads to more workplace injuries that result from repetitive motion, or what is known as cumulative trauma. We invest heavily in ergonomics and redesigning work spaces to lessen the stress on the body. But ergonomics isn't enough. Healthier employees are less likely to suffer injuries; if they do, they recover more quickly and are likely to cost less to treat. In fact, recent research indicates that costs for indemnity benefits for injuries to obese workers is about 10 times the cost of healthy-weight workers … If we can help people make more positive choices at work, then they are more likely to make healthier and safer choices at home.

Behavior-based safety is where the safety industry is now. This is essentially about influencing choices that cause workplace injuries. We jam a miter saw guard because it gets in our way, or we don't wear eye protection. Influencing behavior and establishing good culture is where the big gains are to be made.

Mainebiz: Is there an increase in focus on preventive safety?

MB: In Maine there was an absolute change in workplace culture, ushered in by the 1992 reforms and MEMIC's work around safety. Since then, the focus on safety, and the performance in safety, has gotten better across the board. Workers' compensation costs continue to fall, with rates down 4.3% on April 1 of this year and a decrease of nearly 60% since the reforms.

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