Workers’ Comp Plus New Tech Tools? It Could Equal Injury Prevention and Enhanced Recovery

Workers’ comp was once slow to implement technology. Now, it’s catching up quickly.

Workers’ comp has long been an industry that heralded hands-on management and stand-alone education as key to improving workplace safety.

People, it was thought, can best connect with one another and promote good working conditions.

While a human touch is still important, today new safety technology is augmenting risk managers’ ability to prevent injuries, get workers back to work and engineer exposures out of the workplace.

Impressive early results and growth in adoption have caused leaders to believe the industry is ripe for even more disruption.

Wearables Kick Off A Safety Revolution

The workers’ comp industry began embracing new technologies just prior to the pandemic: “Starting back in ’18 and beginning of ’19, we started seeing more information and hearing more questions from our affiliates about ‘What
are these safety technologies and what can they do?’” said Damian England, executive director of affiliate services at NCCI. “It started primarily with wearable technologies, “so we decided to explore deeper.”

NCCI began researching data on the use and availability of safety technology, which grew to include a slate of recent reports on the industry’s willingness to adopt new solutions and the barriers to adoption.

“There has been a lot of activity in the past five or so years, especially for video artificial intelligence technology,” said Yuchen Su, actuary II, NCCI. “Those startups really just started in 2018 or 2019.”

Wearables in particular have been a success story. While the technology has been on the market for a long time, the devices also require more buy-in from employers and employees to implement. Their benefits must be clear, or employers won’t want to spend the money to adopt them. For some companies on the leading edge, the risk has been worth the reward.

More Technologies Enter the Picture

Yuchen Su, actuary II, NCCI

According to England and Su, the landscape is made up of a few main categories: wearable technologies, exoskeletons, virtual reality and AI, or computer vision.

“The industry was more in a testing phase — the carriers, the employers and the safety technology providers were getting more active,” England said. “More recently, we’ve seen continued growth and interest in the wearables along with additional technologies including computer vision-type technologies, AI, machine learning, internet of things and software applications.”

There’s excitement around all this innovation, too.

“Our industry is one that has had little disruption for quite some time,” said Dale Hoppe, vice president of program underwriting at Nationwide.

“If I think about this in its most simplistic form, workers’ compensation insurance has been a passive line, focusing on mitigation of losses — how we can return a worker back to work after injury, and then setting up robust networks to limit loss exposure. So when I think about what’s changing, it’s really a pivot to a more active style of insurance.”

One way Nationwide is implementing more active methods is with a vendor providing on-demand loss control, reducing the time between a loss and an investigation.

He noted that video of workplaces, combined with machine learning, has accelerated risk mitigation, and he’s implemented a solution for that called CompScience. However, some of his most impressive results have come from a wearable.

“Kinetic Insurance has a wearable solution; wearables aren’t brand new, but they’re gaining traction as we’ve advanced in technology in general,” Hoppe explained.

“The theory we’re trying to prove here is that we can reduce workplace losses if we work with an employee to reduce what Kinetic calls ‘high-risk postures.’ ”

Hoppe explained that the device, which looks like a pager, senses non-ergonomic movements through sensors and vibrates to indicate that non-ergonomic movement to the employee. “Since we’ve launched this, [Kinetic] has recognized about a 35% reduction in high-risk postures,” Hoppe said. “Obviously, if you’re teaching employees to retrain themselves and they’re getting this notification that they’re lifting inappropriately, that will reduce workplace losses. It’s a little early to start making the correlation, but given that high-risk postures lead to the majority of sprain or strain injuries, it’s very promising.”

In addition to preventing injuries, sensor technology can help after the fact. Nan-Wei Gong, founder and CEO of FIGUR8, holds a PhD in sensor technology and identifies her company as a different type of tech in the workers’ comp space — datadriven recovery.

FIGUR8 uses its data to augment existing guidelines like ODG with a real assessment of a worker’s range of motion, a “biomotion score.” The score can help drive therapy decisions and increase workers’ confidence in their therapist’s assessment.

“Our solution is implemented in clinics,” Gong explained. “We have case studies in FIGUR8-enabled clinics and we’re seeing a 22% reduction in recovery time in some diagnostic categories versus the ODG guidelines. That’s about $4,000 in savings per claim.”

Quantifying Impact

Damian England, executive director of affiliate services, NCCI

These results aren’t just in the wearables sector. Data gathered by NCCI in its tech providers report indicated that an AI provider
working with a window and door manufacturing company reported a 95% reduction in overhead lift high-risk postures, a 59% reduction in waist bend high-risk postures and a 59% reduction in squatting high-risk postures.

Other less common technologies like exoskeletons also touted case studies with similarly impressive results in the NCCI study.

However, given the novelty of this technology, there should be a healthy degree of skepticism along with the high degree of excitement.

“It’s too early to quantify that impact [on claims]; we don’t have much data yet. There are successful case studies with quantifiable impacts shared by the technology companies, and people do take that with a grain of salt,” said Su.

She indicated results from a single employer (like a 60% premium reduction) have been reported, but that they could easily be
an outlier.

Case studies are not the only possible way to look at the data, though; additional efficiencies play heavily into the marketing and practical uses for these solutions.

“Some of the carriers and employers mentioned that the integration of these solutions within operational efficiencies created a much greater impact,” Su said. “People mentioned that if you can prevent one or two low back injuries at $50,000 dollars each, the solution has paid for itself.”

Aside from the return-on-investment element, privacy concerns and friction in implementation are key to understanding the landscape of workers’ comp safety tech and its growth: If employees refuse to use the technology because it isn’t user-friendly or they doubt their employer’s motives, it’s unlikely to go anywhere.

“I would say there’s always a little bit of friction, and the key to overcoming that friction is how you deploy it and your willingness to answer questions, and also how engaged the safety people at the policyholder level are,” said Haytham Elhawary, cofounder of Kinetic Insurance, the company partnered with Nationwide for its wearable solution.

“What we’ve done is go to the policyholder locations to help explain what it does and overcome the friction that comes from not understanding it. We also provide a dividend program if they adopt it. At the end of the year, we look at the loss ratio of the policyholder and whether they’ve adopted the technology, and if they have, we offer them a percentage of their premium back. That engages the managers to do it, and then we fly out there to engage the workers.”

Change is coming, especially as more employers become aware of what’s available and understand its customizability to their workplaces. Trust, transparency and a true partnership between constituents will be the ultimate hurdle to full adoption across the industry. &

 

Nina Luckman is a business journalist based in New Orleans, focusing primarily on the workers’ compensation industry. Over the last several years, Nina has served as Editor of Louisiana Comp Blog, a news site she started in 2014 under the auspices of a group self-insurance fund. She can be reached at [email protected].


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