"We wanted to control the cause of worker injury, not the claims,' says Mark Mariani, CEO of Mariani Packing Co., in San Jose, Calif. The dried-fruit company partnered with an insurer to improve safety in the workplace and in five years has cut premiums in half, from 1% of sales to .5%.

When Mariani pitched the prevention idea to several insurers, only one paid more than lip service. Argonaut Insurance, in Menlo Park, Calif., toured the production areas with its own safety experts, evaluating hazards. Mariani, then a $35-million company, made low-cost changes, such as rotating jobs every two hours to prevent strain from repetition, and setting up platforms for workers to prevent back injuries.

Back strain was the most common injury, so Mariani brought in a specialist, at a cost of $5,000 over three months, to develop and teach a stretching routine. The number of back injuries dropped immediately. Now all workers stretch for six minutes each morning. During stretches, supervisors and workers discuss safety tips and point out hazards.

Mariani posted boards in each department to track injury-free days, tying supervisors' compensation to accident rates. Interdepartmental competition broke out, resulting in a record 725 accident-free days in one department. As a reward the company holds a monthly $1,000 lottery funded with the savings; injury-free employees can win cash and other prizes.

Argonaut's ergonomist visits twice a year to reevaluate potential hazards. And all accidents are analyzed for causes and hazards. By Mariani's estimate, every $1 spent on prevention buys $4 in premium savings. -- Phaedra Hise

* * *