In 2017, 612,677 bridges in the United States received an annual inspection. 54,259 of them were found to be “structurally deficient”. The average age of a structurally deficient bridge in this country is 67 years. Across all bridges, 4 out of 10 are more than 50 years old. Clearly, some of these critical elements of our nation’s infrastructure continue to serve beyond their intended lifespan. And bridges in America may not be the only thing that are crumbling. It is quite possible that the very underpinnings of the workers’ compensation system are suffering similar entropy and decay.
I am speaking metaphorically, of course, as technologically the industry is moving faster than it ever has to bring itself into the 21st century. Those improvements, however, merely serve to expedite process; while it is the underlying legal standards and requirements governing those processes that may be suffering fatigue.
Peter Rousmaniere published a column on this site yesterday discussing the injured worker and our industry’s failure to consider them in our “processes.” In his review, he relied heavily on comparisons between state standards today and recommendations made by the 1972 National Commission on State Workmen’s Compensation Laws. I do not argue with Rousmaniere or question his logic. After all, he is only able to work with the tools our industry can provide him. And while I have a few issues with how the National Commission on State Workmen’s Compensation Laws was assembled, my biggest concern with it was that it conducted its work in 1972.
In 1972, I was 12 years old. Richard Nixon was President. Virtually all phones were tethered to a wall and most came with rotary dials. Black and white televisions were still produced and sold in this country. The average cost of a new house was just under $28,000. Gas was about .35 cents a gallon. Average annual income was $11,800. Music came in the form of a vinyl disc, or for the truly adventurous, the 8-track tape. We not only had to go to a library to research something, we had to engage the resource desk representative to find the truly obscure.
The internet, the iPhone, Skype and Google were things far beyond the imagination of most. At best they were the stuff of Buck Rogers Serials, which, by the way, were still being aired on late night television in 1972.
We need to force ourselves to realize that, when addressing shortcomings and benefit issues within the workers’ compensation industry, our most current “go to source”; the one most often cited when we talk about fixing workers’ comp, is a set of recommendations that were created 46 years ago.
Some of you weren’t even alive then. And most of the Commission members from that time are no longer with us.
Workers’ compensation is today serving an economy and society that has very little resemblance to what existed at its founding over 100 years ago. Yet, we continue to tweak, patch, reform and “fix” our legislative structures almost as if nothing has changed. New ideas and innovative concepts, while gaining the attention and support of a relatively few yet boisterous members of our self-styled cognoscenti, seem to never make it into the regulatory reality that guides the various systems across our land. Those realities continue to be built upon an aging ideology, one that strains under the weight of complexities never imagined by our industry forefathers.
Put simply, when our current bridge was platted, the automobile was in its infancy, and most travel was still undertaken with horse and buggy. That was the traffic load it was initially built to carry.
I recently mentioned my own vision of a new foundation for our industry in the article Workers’ Recovery and The State of the Onion Address. Rebranding our industry as “Workers’ Recovery” would represent a strong shift in a new direction for us. Yet it is a concept unlikely to see reality in my lifetime. There are other ideas offering unique opportunities to build a system designed for our present and future needs, but the odds of them actually being incorporated by legislators are improbable at best.
Certainly, there are organizations doing excellent research work today. Those studies, for the most part, are looking at structural elements of our industry, and not the entire structure as a whole. I cannot shake the feeling that any changes that actually result from their findings are being applied somewhat superficially. A new coat of paint, a patch for a widening crack, or replacing a decayed beam; it is all being applied to a structure that is decades old and facilitating vehicles never imagined when it was built.
Perhaps it is time for a new form of conveyance.
It is no secret what I think we should do. I favor a new bridge that takes us from injury to recovery; one designed to carry today’s traffic and built with awareness of bio-psycho social trends that affect its flow. Whether it is this concept or another, we need a bridge that is capable of carrying us well into the future.
And when looking to that future, perhaps we should have better architectural designs than a set of recommendations made nearly 50 years in our past.