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Natural Catastrophe

Quake Early Warning Systems Advance

The U.S. Geological Survey is funding the development of the next generation of earthquake early warning systems.
By: | September 7, 2016 • 4 min read

The recent catastrophic earthquake in central Italy once again brings attention to the concept of an earthquake early warning system — a technology that can give people a precious few seconds to stop what they’re doing and take protective actions before the severe shaking waves from an earthquake arrive.

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To try to improve an existing (in development) U.S.-based warning system, ShakeAlert, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) recently awarded $3.7 million to six universities to support transitioning ShakeAlert into a full-blown production system.

According to USGS, the schools involved are the California Institute of Technology, Central Washington University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Oregon, University of Washington and University of Nevada, Reno.

In development for a decade, this impending ShakeAlert “upgrade” emphasizes the use of real-time GPS observations. Typical earthquake early warning systems use seismic data, which is not as effective as GPS technology in many cases.

The project’s goal: rapidly detect potentially damaging earthquakes, more thoroughly test the warning system, and improve its performance. In addition, they will upgrade the networks and construct new seismic and geodetic sensors to improve the speed and reliability of the warnings.

“Local seismic networks have a tough time discriminating between large [M6] and very large [M7-9] earthquakes in real-time, whereas the GPS does not, assuming one has instruments nearby the earthquake and can keep them alive and transmitting thereafter,” said Tim Melbourne, a geological sciences professor and director of the PANGA Geodesy Laboratory at Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash.

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Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

According to Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator at the Caltech Seismological Lab in Pasadena, Calif., the USGS and its partners began sending live alerts to beta users in January of 2012. In February 2016, it rolled-out the next-generation ShakeAlert early warning test system in California.

USGS plans to begin sending limited public alerts by 2018 in areas where station coverage is sufficient and public educations and training has been introduced. Full operation will not be possible until full funding is secured to complete, maintain, and operate the system.

“Recording real-time, high-precision GPS ground motions is an emerging technology,” he said. “GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.”

Given cited the M9.0 Japanese earthquake in 2010. The Japanese earthquake warning system, which only uses seismic data, “saturated” at M8.1, resulting in an underestimation of the resulting ground motions.

“GPS sensors can stay on scale and more accurately measure large displacements of the ground during very large earthquakes, say greater than magnitude 7.” — Doug Given, Earthquake Early Warning coordinator, Caltech Seismological Lab

“Studies done after the earthquake have shown that a better magnitude estimate results by including GPS data,” Given said.

Would ShakeAlert, operating at full production, have an impact on commercial insurance? It’s highly possible, according to experts.

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Michael Pinsel, partner, Insurance and Financial Services group, Sidley Austin LLP

“We welcome public investments into the mitigation of earthquake risks in California, as it contributes to a more resilient society,” said Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, with Swiss Re. “Ample warning time of a pending natural disaster is vital to saving lives.”

Castaldi explained that with meteorological events, many of which are slow moving, experts can predict and warn with a degree of accuracy — days, hours, or minutes beforehand. This keeps fatalities down in relation to property damage.

But earthquakes, and their potential for devastation, and can happen at any time, day or night.

“Early warning systems provide valuable seconds before the ground begins to shake,” he said. “Even a few seconds’ warning will provide time for first responders to prepare, for trains to decelerate, for gas pipe shutoff valves to be closed, for example. Moreover, early warning can save lives by giving people time to protect themselves [drop, cover, and hold].”

“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California.” — Andrew Castaldi, SVP and head of catastrophe perils, Americas, Swiss Re

Castaldi said that businesses and people that incorporate early warnings into their emergency preparedness plans can mitigate against potential fire, business interruption and casualty losses. He cautioned though, that even a system like ShakeAlert cannot reduce damage to a poorly designed building or a poorly secured piece of equipment, nor can it help compensate for the financial losses associated with the ensuing damages.

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“Investment in early warning systems should not come at the cost of decreased investment in improving the resilience of infrastructure or lifelines and buildings throughout California,” he said. “Early warnings, enforced building codes, and adequate post-event financing [earthquake insurance] will help us become more resilient to the next big earthquake.”

Michael Pinsel, a partner in the Insurance and Financial Services group at Sidley Austin LLP, in Chicago, said that advances in science, technology and early warning systems no doubt enhance the opportunities to improve the risk management of those who take advantage of such opportunities.

“Improvements in risk management ultimately should be reflected in lower loss costs and more efficient premium structures for protection buyers,” he said. “And improvements to sensor and telemetry infrastructure are also useful to the insurance industry, which often can develop efficient new coverages and risk-spreading products to help individual and business consumers manage their risks.”

Tom Starner is a freelance business writer and editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Risk Focus: Workers' Comp

Do You Have Employees or Gig Workers?

The number of gig economy workers is growing in the U.S. But their classification as contractors leaves many without workers’ comp, unemployment protection or other benefits.
By: and | July 30, 2018 • 5 min read

A growing number of Americans earn their living in the gig economy without employer-provided benefits and protections such as workers’ compensation.

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With the proliferation of on-demand services powered by digital platforms, questions surrounding who does and does not actually work in the gig economy continue to vex stakeholders. Courts and legislators are being asked to decide what constitutes an employee and what constitutes an independent contractor, or gig worker.

The issues are how the worker is paid and who controls the work process, said Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney specializing in workers’ compensation law with a client roster in the trucking industry.

The common law test, he said, the same one the IRS uses, considers “whose tools and whose materials are used. Whether the employer is telling the worker how to do the job on a minute-to-minute basis. Whether the worker is paid by the hour or by the job. Whether he’s free to work for someone else.”

Legal challenges have occurred, starting with lawsuits against transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. Several court cases in recent years have come down on the side of allowing such companies to continue classifying drivers as independent contractors.

Those decisions are significant for TNCs, because the gig model relies on the lower labor cost of independent contractors. Classification as an employee adds at least 30 percent to labor costs.

The issues lie with how a worker is paid and who controls the work process. — Bobby Bollinger, a North Carolina attorney

However, a March 2018 California Supreme Court ruling in a case involving delivery drivers for Dynamex went the other way. The Dynamex decision places heavy emphasis on whether the worker is performing a core function of the business.

Under the Dynamex court’s standard, an electrician called to fix a wiring problem at an Uber office would be considered a general contractor. But a driver providing rides to customers would be part of the company’s central mission and therefore an employee.

Despite the California ruling, a Philadelphia court a month later declined to follow suit, ruling that Uber’s limousine drivers are independent contractors, not employees. So a definitive answer remains elusive.

A Legislative Movement

Misclassification of workers as independent contractors introduces risks to both employers and workers, said Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust.

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered.”

Misclassifying workers opens a “Pandora’s box” for employers, said Richard R. Meneghello, partner, Fisher Phillips.

Issues include tax liabilities, claims for minimum wage and overtime violations, workers’ comp benefits, civil labor law rights and wrongful termination suits.

The motive for companies seeking the contractor definition is clear: They don’t have to pay for benefits, said Meneghello. “But from a legal perspective, it’s not so easy to turn the workforce into contractors.”

“My concern is for individuals who believe they’re covered under workers’ compensation, have an injury, try to file a claim and find they’re not covered in the eyes of the state.” — Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

It’s about to get easier, however. In 2016, Handy — which is being sued in five states for misclassification of workers — drafted a N.Y. bill to establish a program where gig-economy companies would pay 2.5 percent of workers’ income into individual health savings accounts, yet would classify them as independent contractors.

Unions and worker advocacy groups argue the program would rob workers of rights and protections. So Handy moved on to eight other states where it would be more likely to win.

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So far, the Handy bills have passed one house of the legislature in Georgia and Colorado; passed both houses in Iowa and Tennessee; and been signed into law in Kentucky, Utah and Indiana. A similar bill was also introduced in Alabama.

The bills’ language says all workers who find jobs through a website or mobile app are independent contractors, as long as the company running the digital platform does not control schedules, prohibit them from working elsewhere and meets other criteria. Two bills exclude transportation network companies such as Uber.

These laws could have far-reaching consequences. Traditional service companies will struggle to compete with start-ups paying minimal labor costs.

Opponents warn that the Handy bills are so broad that a service company need only launch an app for customers to contract services, and they’d be free to re-classify their employees as independent contractors — leaving workers without social security, health insurance or the protections of unemployment insurance or workers’ comp.

That could destabilize social safety nets as well as shrink available workers’ comp premiums.

A New Classification

Independent contractors need to buy their own insurance, including workers’ compensation. But many don’t, said Hart Brown, executive vice president, COO, Firestorm. They may not realize that in the case of an accident, their personal car and health insurance won’t engage, Brown said.

Matt Zender, vice president, workers’ compensation product manager, AmTrust

Workers’ compensation for gig workers can be hard to find. Some state-sponsored funds provide self-employed contractors’ coverage.  Policies can be expensive though in some high-risk occupations, such as roofing, said Bollinger.

The gig system, where a worker does several different jobs for several different companies, breaks down without portable benefits, said Brown. Portable benefits would follow workers from one workplace engagement to another.

What a portable benefits program would look like is unclear, he said, but some combination of employers, independent contractors and intermediaries (such as a digital platform business or staffing agency) would contribute to the program based on a percentage of each transaction.

There is movement toward portable benefits legislation. The Aspen Institute proposed portable benefits where companies contribute to workers’ benefits based on how much an employee works for them. Uber and SEI together proposed a portable benefits bill to the Washington State Legislature.

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Senator Mark Warner (D. VA) introduced the Portable Benefits for Independent Workers Pilot Program Act for the study of portable benefits, and Congresswoman Suzan DelBene (D. WA) introduced a House companion bill.

Meneghello is skeptical of portable benefits as a long-term solution. “They’re a good first step,” he said, “but they paper over the problem. We need a new category of workers.”

A portable benefits model would open opportunities for the growing Insurtech market. Brad Smith, CEO, Intuit, estimates the gig economy to be about 34 percent of the workforce in 2018, growing to 43 percent by 2020.

The insurance industry reinvented itself from a risk transfer mechanism to a risk management mechanism, Brown said, and now it’s reinventing itself again as risk educator to a new hybrid market. &

Susannah Levine writes about health care, education and technology. She can be reached at [email protected] Michelle Kerr is associate editor of Risk & Insurance. She can be reached at [email protected]