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Port of Seattle Case Study

Port of Seattle employees

Unique Collaboration Across Departmental Heads with a Focus on Safety

The Port of Seattle is a municipal corporation created in 1911 by the voters of King County. It is a public enterprise with unique authority operating in an international, market driven environment and its mission is to be the most effective and respected provider of transportation facilities and services for international trade and commerce and a publicly owned catalyst for sustained regional prosperity. The Port services and facilities accommodate transportation cargo and passengers by air, water, and land. It provides a home for the fishing industry. It is divided into three divisions: the aviation division managing the business and operations at Sea-Tac Airport, the economic development division, and the seaport division (including harbor services, cargo and cruise services, seaport business development, and property management). The Port approximates 1,500 employees across the three divisions.

Disability Management Practices

Personnel Interviewed:

Ms. Marjorie S. Hillson, Mgr., Consulting Services, People Program -- Chief Contact
Ms. Cynthia Alvarex, Diversity Consultant, People Program

Ms. Manette Moses, Mgr, Employee Loss Prevention, Disability Mgt, Health & Safety

The Port has had a self administered Workers Compensation program since 1998. The focus has been maintaining very aggressive efforts at work return for those experiencing a disability and establishing modified positions utilizing reasonable accommodation as quickly as possible and has been expanded to non-work related injuries. Disability management is an interactive procedure set in motion once the disability has been identified. It is common that several of the personnel interviewed would be involved in a particular case with a supervisor and employee.

Job analyses are provided to employees with a disability involving both physical and cognitive/behavioral demands of their positions and other positions that might be used or modified to keep that individual working. Meetings are established with the employee and will include Disability Management on a needed basis with the Benefits Manager (specialist in Family Medical Leave Act, long term disability, etc.) providing support as required. Disability cases are reviewed monthly by members of the above team. The staffing of the Health and Safety program includes a Workers Compensation claim adjudicator, three Health and Safety Management specialists, a Disability Management specialist, and two additional Health and Safety Management specialists specifically supporting the Seaport and aviation Maintenance.

External certified rehabilitation counselors and nurses are contracted as appropriate. There is a definitive effort made to match these external consultants to the individual with disability relative to background, communication style, etc. Although non work disability categories vary substantially, approximately half of the work related injuries within the Port are soft tissue low back injuries.

The Disability Management program has gone through several changes in addition to becoming self administered in 1998. A major emphasis in recent years has been a Port of Seattle company-wide safety campaign, with nine established safety benchmarks including completion of safety training, manager involvement in a safety committee, and other benchmarks linked to safe behaviors and actions. There has been an emphasis not only on increasing safety awareness, but on promoting the value of bringing workers with injuries back to work as soon as possible. The Port's magazine, "Portal", has been used to feature a worker with an injury transitioning back to work. Presently, both work and non-work related injuries/disabilities on the caseload have reached an all time low. Approximately three years ago, when the safety campaign was initiated, the caseload size was 30 40 for both the work and non-work related disabilities. Presently, there are only 12 individuals across both categories.

Part of the Port's success story is attributable to the collaboration among Health and Safety, Human Resources, Labor, and Ms. Alvarez, in disability management, efforts across their departments and in their clear and well coordinated communication. There is an effort to communicate clearly with all the different departments across the Port - "the Port is a small city" involving a police department, fire department, electronics, etc. and numerous unions. Twenty seven unions must be dealt with as part of the Disability Management program. Their professional and well coordinated efforts have made them more of an ally not only to the employee experiencing disability, but to department heads and union representatives. Ms. Hillson, Alvarez, and Moses currently are thinking beyond safety and developing psycho-educational series on "Living the Second Half of Your Life", and "Health and Wellness". They are encouraging the Port's employees to take a proactive look at both their individual physical and psychological adjustment. They also credit a very effective employee assistance program external to the Port as being very helpful to their efforts.

It should be noted that in addition to an outstanding disability management effort, the Port also makes an effort to actively consider individuals with disabilities in the hiring process and has hired six individuals through their supported employment (SE) model. A concerted effort is made to truly integrate these employees throughout the Port in different departments to include: fire department, port construction, mail room, and human resources. These employees with significant disabilities also appear adequately compensated for their efforts with several jobs being upgraded in level due to skills learned by these supported employees. Although the Port has not been hiring since the September 11th tragedy, there has been a continuing effort to provide work experience to those with disabilities including high school and college internships for students with blindness through a joint effort with the State of Washington Commission for the Blind.

Unique Disability Management Practices


  • The collaboration across departmental heads responsible for Human Resources, Workers Compensation, Disability Management/Employee Loss Prevention, and Diversity is admirable and reinforces better communication and optimism on the part of the worker with a disability. Their efforts have also promoted credibility gains with the labor unions and better working relationships in returning the worker to the job site.


  • The emphasis on safety is exemplary--safety evaluated as an aspect of job duties/proficiency. In addition to the efficiency of the Port's self administered Workers Compensation program; the emphasis is safety is attributed by all personnel interviewed to be the reason for the historic low point in workers with disabilities on current caseloads - one sixth of those on these caseloads when the initial program was mounted in 2000.


  • The emphasis on psycho-educational programming related to effective aging, coping, and health and wellness is a step beyond safety but certainly a health promoting direction and preventative of on- or off work site disability.


For information regarding this Case Study contact:
Marjorie S. Hillson, Consulting Services
People Programs
(206) 728 3306

McMahon, B., Wehman, P., Brooke, V., Habeck, R., Green, H., and Fraser, R. (2004). Business, Disability and Employment: Corporate Models of Success. A Collection of Successful Approaches Reported from 20 Employers. Richmond: Virginia Commonwealth University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Workplace Supports and Job Retention.

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