Back in the 1980s, Montana was in a workers’ comp crisis. Claims and settlements skyrocketed higher every year. The insurance payout fund dried up. So the state legislature administered new taxes and surcharges hoping to aid the fund, to the concern of employers and employees.

In 1992, then-governor Stan Stephens appointed a task force made up of Montana’s safety and health consultants and pros to find a way to set safety straight in the state. Since 1993, the new program, called the Montana Safety Culture Act, has encouraged employers to pursue safety as an important part of every workday.

Changing enforcement roles

The plan is to change safety from the roots, over the long-term, instituting systems that make safety an active, visible part of work culture. Responsibility is spread evenly to employers, employees, insurance organizations and government so each becomes an integral part of the statewide system, says Labor Commissioner Laurie Ekanger.

The safety culture act distributes responsibility down the line, away from government-only, watchdog-type laws. It puts the government in the role as educator for safety, not the enforcer. For example, the Labor and Industry Department sponsors an on-site safety and health consultation program as well as one to promote safety education in public schools.

Now insurers, not the state, enforce safety regulations through consultations, warnings, penalties, and fines. Every employer is required to have workers’ comp insurance. They can chose private or state insurance (the one connection the state has to penalties and fines is the state-sponsored workers’ comp insurance fund), or chose to self-insure. If an employer doesn’t want a safety program, their premium could be doubled.

Employers, as part of this integral system, have to do more than just purchase insurance. Companies are required to establish and maintain an educational-based training program which includes the following: ·

  • A general safety orientation for every employee before they begin work; ·
  • Job-specific training before the employee begins that task, then annual refresher safety training; ·
  • A system of building employee awareness through posters, newsletters, meetings, and safety incentive programs; ·
  • Periodic self-inspections for hazard assessment at least annually; ·
  • Lastly, documentation of all activities.

Also, employers with more than five employees must have a comprehensive safety program with policies that specifically define employee responsibility and safety performance accountability; procedures for reporting, investigating, and taking corrective action on all work-related accidents, injuries, illnesses, incidents and known unsafe work conditions or practices. A safety committee was also a requirement until the MSCA was amended in 1995. The state recognized that some businesses may work safely without a committee, and can do so with a waiver from the insurance company.

Even with the trend toward changing safety cultures, Montana is the only state to address such changes through regulation. California, Oregon, and Nebraska have similar programs requiring safety committees, but the states act as enforcers.

So, for all those other states teetering on the edge of including "culture" in safety regulations, and want to know if it’s working, statistical results will be awhile coming. The stats for 1995 are not in yet, but for 1994 claim and settlement rates were down, says Ekanger.

Montana safety and health pros seem positive about the changes. Businesses who had safety going in the right direction didn’t have to suddenly change course, and those without a safety plan have found guidance, says Ed Hammet, safety director of Strategic Supply in Billings. Strategic’s insurance company comes in three times a year to make suggestions and improve conditions.

The act works because everyone believes in its employee-involved, education-based philosophy, says Don Rebal, safety officer for the City.