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What's their secret?

January 21, 1999

For every worker's compensation claim filed in Ohio, 150 are logged in West Virginia, according to officials of the Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp., who talked to the state legislative leaders last Tuesday.

Invited to discuss ways the state could bring in new business, the top officials of big metal manufacturers said "fix the worker's comp system." Unfortunately, they were more adept at identifying the problem than at proposing solutions.

It's unlikely that there is any way the system can be quickly repaired, due to its $1.9 billion deficit. To deal with that, the legislature reorganized worker's comp in 1995, setting up a 40-year plan to pay off its debt and making it more difficult for workers to sustain claims of permanent and total disability.

Now some lawmakers want to revisit those reforms to either reduce the premiums business pays, or making it easier for injured workers to get disability pay. It's a classic labor-management confrontation that will probably lead to legislative gridlock. Let us suggest another possibility.

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If worker's compensation claims are much lower in Ohio than they are in West Virginia, why is that? If pneumoconiosis, an occupational disease among aluminum factory workers, generates more than 1,000 complaints against a West Virginia maker, but none anywhere else in the U.S., what accounts for the discrepancy?

It may be, as the manufacturers say, that there are too many disability classifications in West Virginia law, providing a bigger menu of choices for workers trying to get compensation for their injuries.

But it's also possible that other states have taken a different approach, emphasizing industrial safety and how avoiding unnecessary claims makes everyone's job more secure.

And so while other possibilities exist - selling bonds to pay liability claims and spreading the risk by buying so-called "reinsurance" policies, we recommend the legislators look at other states which do a better job of worker's comp, and see whether it's due to better laws or better safety practices on the factory floor.

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