GARY STONEWALL, SAFETY DIRECTOR for R&H Construction in Portland, Ore., says that back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, home builders really didn't have much of a choice when it came to workers' compensation insurance.

“You just paid the high prices,” says Stonewall, who notes that in many ways, the state faced the worst of both worlds.

At the time, Oregon businesses paid the sixth most expensive rates nationally for workers' comp insurance. And Oregon workers received some of the lowest pay-outs in the nation on claims—benefits for permanent disabilities were in the bottom 10 percent nationally.

To make matters worse for builders, construction accident rates in the state were at 16.1 incidents per 100 workers, second only to manufacturing's 16.8 incidents per 100 workers (which was largely a result of the high accident rate in the logging industry). The credit crunch and general recession were also crippling businesses back then, so something had to give.

Oregon OSHA Inspections, 2003
Oregon OSHA Inspections, 2003

It took this crisis for people to change, which led to a series of reforms that freed up state funds to put more Oregon OSHA (OR-OSHA) personnel in the field for enforcement and consultations; to support early back-to-work programs for injured workers; and to create an Ombudsman for Injured Workers, an eight-person office that helps injured workers navigate the workers' comp system.

The result: Workers' comp premiums in Oregon dropped nearly 47 percent over 15 years, and the state now has some of the lowest premiums in the nation. Oregon ranked No. 42 last year, with No. 1 California paying the highest prices. Construction accidents also declined 44.7 percent in Oregon from 1989 to 2001 and hit their lowest points in the last two recorded years, 2002 and 2003.

WORLD OF DIFFERENCE “When there's an injury, the sooner we can start processing the paperwork, the better,” says Bob Harris, loss control consultant for the HBA of Marion and Polk counties in Oregon and an injured worker himself. Harris, who helps home builders work through injury claims, was almost buried alive 35 years ago in a 12-foot ditch. He damaged his left hip and leg in the accident and went through hip replacement surgery.

“Builders need to know that there are funds available to bring a worker back to work, to buy equipment if necessary, and help bring the worker back to work even while he's recovering from the injury,” Harris says.

Oregon OSHA's consultation program has really made a world of difference in changing the public's perception of OR-OSHA—it's a service many home builders value.

Carla Merrell, co-owner of Laredo Construction, a home builder in Sisters, Ore., says her company initially went through the state's consultation program about five years ago after the company was fined, but she saw the crew's safety focus slipping. So she brought in OR-OSHA occupational safety consultant Kevin Kilroy about a year ago to sharpen the company's safety program.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Portland, OR.