The surveying profession has always held an inherent risk of injury. Whether a project involves cutting a line, moving a manhole cover or traversing a ridge, there are countless ways to get hurt. While some firms might consider accident avoidance to be mainly a matter of luck, history and research show that relying on luck is not a good strategy for protecting surveyors in the field. Instead, avoiding work-related injuries requires an understanding of the inherent risks and a proactive approach that stresses safety.

The concept is simple: Injuries lead to less available work hours from experienced employees, which decreases a firm’s overall productivity and increases the cost of workers’ compensation insurance. Conversely, organizations with an established safety culture will ultimately outperform their more “reckless” counterparts, especially as the marketplace becomes more competitive. By understanding accident trends, causes and strategies for avoidance, all surveying firms--regardless of size--can incorporate improved safety procedures in their day-to-day activities.

Figure 1. Land surveyors workers’ compensation claims by cause of accident (percent of costs by claim amount). Data courtesy of Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co.

Accident Trends

According to the Fireman’s Fund Insurance Co., 800 workers’ compensation claims were filed by large and small surveying firms between 2005 and 2008. A careful review of these claims reveals few surprises. As shown in Figure 1, most of the reported incidents involved slip, trip and fall accidents; injuries from falling or flying objects; and vehicle-related accidents. Figure 2 shows the number of accidents by cause; some of these accidents could have been much worse. These claims represent millions of dollars in total costs, and many of them could have been avoided by following recommended safety guidelines.Consider the following claims:

• Two employees are walking in the field and carrying on an in-depth conversation. One employee is focused on the conversation, loses his balance and falls into a crevice. His injuries take a year to heal and cost nearly $125,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.

• Another field crew is out in the forest pushing back low-lying tree branches as they move through the site. The leader is quick enough to duck a swinging branch, but it strikes the man behind him in the eye. This accident results in the loss of the employee’s eye and $150,000 in workers’ compensation benefits.

Both of these accidents illustrate the importance of conducting pre-work site inspections to understand potential hazards before beginning a surveying project and then emphasizing safe practices in the field. Surveyors should be aware of any potential hazards in the terrain, and any site with a substantial amount of trees and brush should be designated as a mandatory safety-glasses site.

Table 1. Average claim costs based on the reporting turnaround time.

Putting Safety into Practice

Creating a safety-oriented corporate culture requires leadership from the top of an organization. Owners and managers should be proactive in providing safety training for employees--both before they start on the job and at regular intervals--and they should routinely review the safety guidelines with all employees. A comprehensive safety manual should be developed and strictly enforced. Additionally, all crew chiefs should understand accident trends and safety guidelines since they are responsible for ensuring that proper safety procedures are implemented in the field. Following are some questions to consider:

• Do the crew chiefs know how to make safety observations and inspect the site for potential hazards? Are they held accountable for making these inspections?

• Do they understand what the hazards are?

• Are the employees comfortable discussing injuries with the crew chiefs?

• Are the crew chiefs capable of performing accident investigations?

• Do crew chiefs understand the implications of unsafe behavior and near-miss incidents?

• Are the chiefs accountable for the actions of the employees who report to them?

• Does the firm use a system that rewards crews for being safety-conscious and avoiding injuries? (Such systems have proven beneficial to augment safety programs by raising awareness and promoting the company's safety results.)

• Is safety a component of crew chiefs’ annual performance appraisal criteria?

Figure 2. Land surveyors workers’ compensation claims by accident cause (total number of accidents).

Even the most safety-conscious firm cannot eliminate all accidents. But a firm with heightened awareness and a sound plan will be able to respond appropriately when accidents do occur. Additionally, when employees know that the crew chiefs and firm owners properly maintain the firm’s vehicles, conduct site inspections with an eye for potential hazards, keep hand tools and equipment in good condition, and are genuinely concerned about employee health and safety, they are more likely to take personal responsibility for safety initiatives and thereby help improve the firm’s safety record.

A safety-conscious firm will be aware of the most common surveying injuries and know how to prevent these injuries by implementing a clearly defined safety program. This approach will lessen the claims frequency and the total dollar amount of workers’ compensation benefits paid--which, in turn, will reduce insurance costs and improve productivity.

Sidebar: Claims Management

Whoever coined the phrase “better late than never” was certainly not a workers’ compensation claims adjuster. Research shows that the average cost of a claim increases 24 percent for injuries that are reported four days or later from the occurrence (Table 1). Two key issues contribute to this increase: The injuries do not get prompt medical attention, and the facts and details of the accidents are likely to become distorted as time elapses. For the claim to be handled properly, employers should emphasize to all employees that workers’ compensation claims must be reported the same day as the injury.

One way to ensure same-day claims reporting is to make the crew chief responsible for inquiring at the end of each workday whether any work injuries occurred. Often, employees are embarrassed by an injury and hesitant to report it to a crew chief or human resources representative. Some of the claims represented in Figures 1 and 2 were reported more than 100 days after the incident occurred because the employees involved did not initially think the injuries warranted reporting. The result was a much more expensive claim. A sound safety program should reiterate that even a seemingly minor injury such as a small cut or scrape can lead to an infection and should be reported immediately.

Of course, prompt claims reporting is only one element of a claims management program. Other integral components can include doctors’ panels, modified-duty reviews and claims reviews. Additional information on claims management can be obtained from your insurance claims department or insurance broker.

Sidebar: Driving Safety

A large percentage of workers’ compensation claims can be attributed to motor vehicle related injuries. A responsible auto insurance carrier will require firms to provide a motor vehicle report (MVR) on any employees allowed to drive. A safety-conscious company will be diligent in allowing only those employees with an acceptable MVR to operate vehicles and any other mobile equipment. Keep in mind that MVRs are excellent predictors of future behavior, and employees who have a high number of driving violations also have a greater tendency to sustain a work-related injury either in a vehicle or in the field.