Column: Risk Management

Lessons Learned from a Costa Rican Earthquake

By: | December 14, 2017 • 3 min read
Joanna Makomaski is a specialist in innovative enterprise risk management methods and implementation techniques. She can be reached at [email protected]

This was my first earthquake. I was standing in my kitchen in Costa Rica on November 12 when it happened. The ground started to grumble. The dog barked.

The fridge began a hula dance. The house swayed back and forth intensely. My pool shot out plumes of water that travelled 20 feet.

I could not walk. I felt as though I was on a very tippy boat. I grabbed the counter and waited.

After the longest 30 seconds of my life, the house stopped swaying. For a grand finale, I heard the last gasps of power shutting down. It got pitch dark. No appliances. No TV. No internet. No cell service. No landline. I was in a blackout on all levels.

I could not see, and I did not know what was going to happen next. Would there be a tsunami? Would there be aftershocks? I decided to stay inside and wait.

When a neighbor heard I stayed inside, I was severely scolded and mocked. “You are a risk manager. You should know; you must get out of the house during the earthquake. Right?”

Within a half hour, things seemed to calm down. My dear neighbor drove up to the house — a beautiful sight, our beach community checking in on each other. We soon learned it was a 6.9-magnitude earthquake as measured at the Universidad Nacional Costa Rica. As it turned out our homes sat right atop the epicenter.


We gathered as neighbors to relive our individual experiences. When a neighbor heard I stayed inside, I was severely scolded and mocked. “You are a risk manager. You should know; you must get out of the house during the earthquake. Right?”

In truth, I was not completely sure. One hears so many versions of what one should do. I never realized how many renditions of escape plans exist. The confusion only compounded as I listened to my overly excited neighbors argue about who pushed who out of the way to get out of the house first.

This story ended well for our community. No damages. No injuries. No threat of a tsunami.

But as a curious risk manager, I decided to take stock and research this issue and finally settle the score. What to do during an earthquake? What is the appropriate risk mitigation for dealing with quakes?

According to the website of the Department of Homeland Security (, if you are inside, you are to drop down onto your hands and knees, cover your head and neck with your arms to protect yourself from falling debris and hold on to any sturdy covering until the shaking stops.

You are not to run outside or get in a doorway. In short you “Drop, Cover and Hold on.” Prepare the same way for aftershocks.

Practicing the drop, cover and hold on procedure is essential. Next is having an earthquake kit at your home or business. Make sure you have a fire extinguisher, a first aid kit, a battery-powered radio, a flashlight and extra batteries. I would add to this list a phone: An old fashioned analog phone that does not need a power connection.

So, when I look back at my instinct to stay put, it all makes sense now. Drop, cover, hold on. &

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

4 Companies That Rocked It by Treating Injured Workers as Equals; Not Adversaries

The 2018 Teddy Award winners built their programs around people, not claims, and offer proof that a worker-centric approach is a smarter way to operate.
By: | October 30, 2018 • 3 min read

Across the workers’ compensation industry, the concept of a worker advocacy model has been around for a while, but has only seen notable adoption in recent years.

Even among those not adopting a formal advocacy approach, mindsets are shifting. Formerly claims-centric programs are becoming worker-centric and it’s a win all around: better outcomes; greater productivity; safer, healthier employees and a stronger bottom line.


That’s what you’ll see in this month’s issue of Risk & Insurance® when you read the profiles of the four recipients of the 2018 Theodore Roosevelt Workers’ Compensation and Disability Management Award, sponsored by PMA Companies. These four programs put workers front and center in everything they do.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top,” said Steve Legg, director of risk management for Starbucks.

Starbucks put claims reporting in the hands of its partners, an exemplary act of trust. The coffee company also put itself in workers’ shoes to identify and remove points of friction.

That led to a call center run by Starbucks’ TPA and a dedicated telephonic case management team so that partners can speak to a live person without the frustration of ‘phone tag’ and unanswered questions.

“We were focused on building up a program with an eye on our partner experience. Cost was at the bottom of the list. Doing a better job by our partners was at the top.” — Steve Legg, director of risk management, Starbucks

Starbucks also implemented direct deposit for lost-time pay, eliminating stressful wait times for injured partners, and allowing them to focus on healing.

For Starbucks, as for all of the 2018 Teddy Award winners, the approach is netting measurable results. With higher partner satisfaction, it has seen a 50 percent decrease in litigation.

Teddy winner Main Line Health (MLH) adopted worker advocacy in a way that goes far beyond claims.

Employees who identify and report safety hazards can take credit for their actions by sending out a formal “Employee Safety Message” to nearly 11,000 mailboxes across the organization.

“The recognition is pretty cool,” said Steve Besack, system director, claims management and workers’ compensation for the health system.

MLH also takes a non-adversarial approach to workers with repeat injuries, seeing them as a resource for identifying areas of improvement.

“When you look at ‘repeat offenders’ in an unconventional way, they’re a great asset to the program, not a liability,” said Mike Miller, manager, workers’ compensation and employee safety for MLH.

Teddy winner Monmouth County, N.J. utilizes high-tech motion capture technology to reduce the chance of placing new hires in jobs that are likely to hurt them.

Monmouth County also adopted numerous wellness initiatives that help workers manage their weight and improve their wellbeing overall.

“You should see the looks on their faces when their cholesterol is down, they’ve lost weight and their blood sugar is better. We’ve had people lose 30 and 40 pounds,” said William McGuane, the county’s manager of benefits and workers’ compensation.


Do these sound like minor program elements? The math says otherwise: Claims severity has plunged from $5.5 million in 2009 to $1.3 million in 2017.

At the University of Pennsylvania, putting workers first means getting out from behind the desk and finding out what each one of them is tasked with, day in, day out — and looking for ways to make each of those tasks safer.

Regular observations across the sprawling campus have resulted in a phenomenal number of process and equipment changes that seem simple on their own, but in combination have created a substantially safer, healthier campus and improved employee morale.

UPenn’s workers’ comp costs, in the seven-digit figures in 2009, have been virtually cut in half.

Risk & Insurance® is proud to honor the work of these four organizations. We hope their stories inspire other organizations to be true partners with the employees they depend on. &

Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]