YAKIMA, Wash. — When Gary Hudson became CEO of Enterprise for Progress in the Community, known as EPIC, in early 2012, he noticed that employees of the early childhood education nonprofit were reporting an unusual number of joint and lower back injuries. And that was driving up worker’s compensation premiums.

“Our employees are continually lifting children, and it leads to a lot of lower back injuries,” Hudson said. “When we started putting safety out front and center, it made a huge difference.”

EPIC began to offer training in proper lifting techniques. Because some shoulder injuries had been reported from reaching for objects high up on shelves, the center made step ladders available.

It’s the little things that add up, Hudson said. “A lot of it was education and little fixes,” he said.

Worker’s comp premiums are a mandatory expense for employers, whether they’re self-insured or enrolled with the state Department of Labor and Industries.

Injuries may sometimes be inevitable, but as EPIC learned, employers can take relativley simple steps to reduce them.

To give employers an incentive to reduce injuries, Labor and Industries offers a retrospective rating program, known as “Retro” for short. It gives employers an opportunity to get partial refunds on their premiums by instituting better safety practices and education among their employees that result in lower injury rates.

Reducing injury rates starts with promoting best practices for avoiding injuries on the job, and responding as soon as possible when employees report injuries, said Tim Smolen, Labor and Industries’ retrospective rating program manager.

“We offer a fair amount of support, too,” Smolen said.

Organizations can enroll individually or through state organizations that are recognized by the department, such as the Association of Washington Business, the Washington State Farm Bureau and other large industry associations.

Employers should be aware of the one caveat of the Retro program: If claim costs are higher than anticipated at enrollment, the participating entity may be charged an assessment fee rather than see a refund. Smolen said that’s why Labor and Industries helps employers determine what amount of risk they want to take on based upon their premiums and previous injury experience ratings.

“The staff would provide technical support in helping them understand the rules of the program,” Smolen said.

About 10 months after one year of enrollment, L&I looks back at the number of reported work-related injuries and determines if claim costs were less than anticipated and awards the refund. Employers can change their Retro plan each year.

“We expect to get our first refund this year,” Hudson said.

Retro could help soften the impact of a possible premium increase next year. L&I is proposing an average 2.7 percent increase statewide. Agency spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said some industries would see a higher increase while others would see a reduction.

A final decision on the proposal will be made in December. It would be the agency’s first rate increase in three years.

• Mike Faulk can be reached at 509-577-7675 or mfaulk@yakimaherald.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.