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Safety Risks in the Changing Workplace

Small businesses can remedy these critical safety risks in the modern workplace.
By: | August 8, 2017 • 5 min read

The age spectrum of the American workforce is widening. Older, retirement-eligible employees are staying on the job longer, sometimes due to financial constraints, and sometimes simply because they want to. Meanwhile, Millennials are making up a larger proportion of payrolls. By 2025 this generation will constitute 40 percent of the American workforce.

The definition of a “workplace” is also expanding. Technology is revolutionizing where, when and how we work, with more employees doing their jobs from home or on the road. While these changes can certainly open up business opportunities, their convergence also increases risk for unprepared employers.

“As the workforce changes, workplace safety risks are also morphing,” said Woody Dwyer, Workers’ Comp Lead, Risk Control, Travelers. “These changes mean employers have to adjust the way they think about keeping workers safe and well.”

In particular, small businesses face unique challenges, balancing safety and wellness against operational needs while they fight to stay competitive. But even they can leverage limited resources to improve safety for employees no matter where, when or how they work.

Here are some ways to remedy key safety risks in the modern workplace:

Safety Risk #1: A Changing Workforce

Woody Dwyer, Workers’ Comp Lead, Risk Control

The average age of the American worker is slowly moving upward as Baby Boomers delay retirement. While employers get to hold on to the knowledge, skills and expertise of their veterans a little longer, they also have to consider safety challenges that become more prevalent with older workers.

“Injury frequency and severity are higher for both new, young workers as well as older, retirement-eligible workers,” Dwyer said. “But the two groups may have different experiences and different mindsets, so their attitudes toward and awareness of safety might be different. Therefore, you need to tailor training differently.”

Remedy: Though the approach may vary, it all comes down to training and reinforcing the safety expectations and culture.

“For an older population, practicing the principles of ergonomics can be impactful,” Dwyer said. Continual safety training and instruction around proper ergonomics is paramount, even for longtime employees. Employers shouldn’t assume that more experienced workers know how to move safely. Reinforcements, reminders and course corrections have value.

“Different companies have different safety practices, and the physical capabilities of workers nearing or past retirement age will be different from those of a recent graduate,” Dwyer said.

With young workers, building safety awareness can begin even before hiring.

“Job descriptions should reflect an emphasis on safety. And behavioral interviewing can identify safety-minded candidates, by asking them how they have responded to risk in previous work scenarios,” Dwyer said.

Carrying through an emphasis on safety during onboarding also drives the message home for younger and older workers alike. Onboarding should consist of hands-on training and practice. For a small retail store, for example, this could include practicing proper reaching and lifting techniques, and safe ladder use.

Safety Risk #2: Tech Revolution

Wearables and sensors have become popular tools for both safety and wellness.

On construction sites or in manufacturing, for example, proximity sensing can alert a worker if they are too close to a piece of machinery or moving equipment, or let a supervisor know if a worker has fallen. There are many sensor-based safety devices on the market, many of them wearable. Wearable fitness trackers and sit-stand desks have also gained popularity as tools to promote overall wellness in the workplace.

Small businesses may be more likely to take advantage of these latest tech tools because they aren’t encumbered by large, complex existing systems; they can change and adapt more easily. And incorporating cutting edge tech can also help to attract talent.

But there is risk involved if these companies don’t do their due diligence.

Remedy: “Be a smart consumer of technology,” Dwyer said.

“Will a piece of technology provide long term value for you? How will you implement it? How will you store and protect the data?  Will your workers accept it?” There are generational differences in attitude toward any type of tracking device. Millennials are more willing to give up personal data if they can see a benefit in it.

Employers can also provide guidelines on how to use new tools. For sit-stand desks, for example, workers should switch positions regularly to minimize stress on the body. Using a foot bar when standing can also help to take pressure off the lower back.

“Some reports say sitting is the new smoking, but standing for long periods is not good for the body either,” Dwyer said.

Safety Risk #3: Open to Distraction

Open workspaces foster collaboration — but can also usher in distraction. Especially in an office setting where workers may be on the phone frequently, an open workspace can be counterproductive.

The more distracted workers are, the more susceptible they may be to slips, trips and falls — one of the most common causes of workplace injuries.

Remedy: Dwyer recommends having designated quiet work areas where employees can escape the noise.

Companies should also have policies to restrict the use of mobile devices in hazardous work areas such as active construction sites, manufacturing areas, or while driving.

“Cubicle and desk design matter in an office setting, too,” he said. “Consider the design and layout of your floor plan, and work with your furniture vendor to make sure everyone will have the space to do their jobs comfortably.

Safety Risk #4: Borderless Business

Thanks to cloud technology and globalization, everything is interconnected, and even small businesses are likely to have some type of international footprint. Which means more trains, planes and hotel stays for employees.

Travel imposes its own stresses on the body and can cause extra fatigue. It might involve late-night driving or being in unfamiliar environments, which increases risk of injury.

Controlling workers’ environments while they’re on the road may not be possible, but employers can provide training to improve safety and security awareness while traveling.

Remedy: “Ergonomics and situational awareness matter out of the office too,” Dwyer said.

To help workers cope with fatigue and navigate unfamiliar places, companies should schedule work to help avoid late hours while traveling and encourage employees to get adequate rest before driving. They can also encourage mindfulness.

“When in strange new places, you need to have a heightened sense of awareness and alertness because you can’t count on the familiar to keep you safe,” Dwyer said.

Even in familiar settings, applying ergonomics reduces risk of injury.

“Use rolling bags when possible, or backpacks that distribute weight evenly, which can reduce pressure on the back when you’re traveling all day. Proper footwear also helps to improve comfort and to reduce the risk of slips, trips and falls,” he said.

Hotel rooms and meeting areas may also be more dimly lit. Workers on the road can protect their eyes by seeking spaces with proper lighting.

Address Evolving Risks through Ongoing Engagement

These are just four of the challenges small businesses will face as workplace and workforce risks continue to evolve, but these and many workplace safety risks can be mitigated in part by a focus on overall well-being.

In addition to providing safety training, implementing new tools and technologies, and developing policies and procedures, investing in employees’ wellness also builds trust and loyalty while helping to prevent injuries. As rising medical expenses drive up claims costs, prevention can help win the day for small businesses with little margin to spare.

“Many small businesses think they don’t have the money for wellness programs, but it can be done in small and simple ways,” Dwyer said.

Offering biometric screens at work, organizing company walks, working with local gyms to provide discounts, or simply gathering resources on wellness for employees to access on their own can benefit employees’ health.

Investing in wellness initiatives can in turn improve employee engagement with other efforts around ergonomics and safety.

Travelers helps small businesses effectively improve workplace safety by attracting and hiring safety-minded candidates, onboarding and training new employees, and continually supporting and engaging those employees through Travelers Workforce AdvantageSM, its comprehensive approach to safety and workers’ comp management.

“The approach hits the three key areas where employers can maximize their safety message: hiring, onboarding and training, and continual engagement,” Dwyer said. No matter how the workforce and workplace continue to evolve, putting safety first will always pay off for employers.

To learn more, visit https://www.travelers.com/resources/workplace-safety/helping-employers-manage-a-safer-workforce.aspx.

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This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Travelers. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.




The Travelers Companies, Inc. (NYSE: TRV) is a leading provider of property casualty insurance for auto, home and business. A component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Travelers has approximately 30,000 employees and generated revenues of approximately $28 billion in 2016. For more information, visit www.travelers.com.

Catastrophe Risk

Material Resiliency

New materials, methods and ideas are empowering property owners to rein in their catastrophe risks.
By: | October 12, 2017 • 11 min read

The 2017 hurricane season is one for the record books. Rebuilding efforts are underway, with builders working to make insureds whole again as soon as possible … at least until the next storm comes along.

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And therein lies the problem with recovery in disaster-prone regions. It evokes the oft-quoted definition of insanity: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

So what if we did it differently? What if instead of rebuilding to make structures “like new,” we rebuilt to make them better, more resilient, less prone to damage?

The reality is, we don’t really have a choice. Climate change is ushering in weather systems that are increasingly volatile. Wildfires are raging like never before. Sea-level rise is threatening our coasts, and there’s no way to dial any of it back.

Nevertheless, people will continue to build homes and businesses along the coast. Real estate developers will continue to nestle luxury homes into wooded foothills.

That means communities need to come to terms with the risk and plan for it intelligently.

Michael Brown, vice president and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

“Natural disasters are going to happen,” said Michael Brown, vice president and property manager with Golden Bear Insurance. “But if we plan and build communities around the idea that something bad may happen someday, then that community can bounce back faster afterward.”

In any natural disaster, he added, “the property damage is extreme. But the biggest portion of the losses, both insured and uninsured, are the time element pieces. How long was the business closed? How long were homeowners unable to occupy their homes? Those are the pieces that drag on for months — years in some    cases — and really drive the economic loss.”

That’s the motivation behind new materials, designs and strategies being implemented in the construction and repair of at-risk residential and commercial properties.

Powerful Flood Solutions

Newer building products move the needle significantly in terms of efficacy.

For new or restored structures in flood-prone regions, Georgia Pacific produces gypsum panels that incorporate fiberglass mats instead of paper facings and comply with the latest FEMA requirements for flood damage resistance and mold resistance. Wall boards made from magnesium oxide (MgO) don’t absorb water at all and have the added benefits of being environmentally friendly and non-flammable.

In the UK, advanced flood-resilient structures built with water-resilient concrete-block partitions are being fitted with not only MgO wallboards, but also wood-look porcelain or ceramic flooring that’s non-permeable and fire-resistant — without sacrificing aesthetics. Drains are installed in the flooring, along with sub-flooring gullies and submersible pumps that push the water back outside. Outlets and appliance motors are all situated above expected flood levels. Doors are equipped with sliding flood panels.

In the event of flooding that exceeds a depth of two feet, automatic opening window panels (flood inlets) are triggered by sensors to allow flood water to enter the property slowly, to reduce external pressure that could damage the structure.

Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global

Controlled inflow buys time for a homeowner to raise furniture up on blocks, or for a business owner to raise pallets of goods up to higher shelves or move equipment to a higher elevation.

Water intrusion is reduced dramatically, and even when it happens, there is little to no damage. Water is pushed into the floor drains, surfaces are allowed to dry, and then it’s back to business as usual in days rather than months — likely with no insurance claim filed.

Dramatic improvements are happening on this side of the pond as well. For entities that need permanent on-site flood solutions, barriers like flood gates and retractable flood walls are the most sophisticated they’ve ever been.

After suffering $4 billion in damage during Superstorm Sandy, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority invested heavily in flexible fabric flood panels that are made with Kevlar® and can be unrolled quickly and easily. Additional flood gates hinged to air grates are passively activated by the weight of incoming water entering the grates.

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The transit authority is also testing a prototype “resilient tunnel plug” — essentially a giant air bag that can be deployed quickly to seal off sections of subway tunnel. The plug is designed to withstand not only flood but also biochemical attack.

Even temporary solutions are leaps and bounds beyond the days when sandbagging was typically the best option. New as-needed barrier methods include inflatable bladders that can be placed around a building’s perimeter and filled with water to keep floodwater and flood debris at bay.

“People have always said, ‘Well, I’m in a flood plain, it’s inevitable. It’s an act of God,’ ” said Carl Solly, vice president and chief engineer, FM Global. “In the last several years, we’ve really been trying to deliver the message that you can do something about your flood risk.”

Shake, Pummel and Burn

Flood is far from the only problem benefiting from smart engineering. FM Global is working with manufacturers to develop and certify roofing material designed to better withstand the localized hailstorms that often plague southeastern and midwestern states.

Current materials rated for severe hail can withstand hailstones up to 1 ¾ inches in diameter. The new product, rated for “very severe” hail can tolerate hailstones up to 2 ½ inches. The difference sounds small, but it’s far from it.

“It’s about three times the amount of impact energy when it hits the roof [compared to a 1 ¾ hailstone],” explained Solly. “That’s a big difference.”

As for “bouncing back” after a catastrophic fire, Solly said that’s a fairly tall order. But even there, technology is helping to reduce the severity of fires so that disruption is minimal.

FM Global researchers recently pioneered the concept of SMART sprinklers — shorthand for Simultaneous Monitoring and Assessment Response Technology — which can sense a fire earlier than traditional systems and activate targeted sprinkler heads when needed and shut off once the fire is out.

“You’ll catch it with less water, so from a water usage perspective, a water damage perspective and a smoke damage perspective, we think that has an opportunity to be a big difference-maker in the fire protection industry, particular with high-challenge fires,” said Solly.

“You’ve got a better chance of stopping what normally would be a really tough fire to catch.”

In addition, added Brown, smarter sprinkler systems, much like burglar alarms, could be programmed to notify the fire department instantly, even when a structure is unoccupied.

For earthquake risk, said Brown, resilient building efforts are less about new materials than they are about more strategic ways of using traditional materials.

“Here in California we wrap homes in stucco around the wood frame to help the whole building move as a unit. Stucco is concrete so it does crack. I end up with a building that’s got some cosmetic damage … but you don’t have to rebuild the building. It does its job in terms of absorbing a lot of the ground motion before it pushes the building beyond its design tolerances.”

Using stronger, larger steel brackets where the walls meet the roof or the floor or each other, said Brown, “keeps the north wall from moving in one direction while the west wall moves a different direction.”

Those kinds of stress points can push modest earthquake damage to catastrophic levels, he said.

One earthquake innovation still in the beta phase is a project out of the U.C. Berkeley Seismological lab, using the accelerometers in smartphones as virtual seismometers. Participating phones have an app that detects certain types of ground motion. As phones pick up earthquake wave patterns, they ping the server which checks nearby smartphones to see if they sensed the same pattern, all in microseconds. If an earthquake pattern can be confirmed, an alarm will be sent to every cellphone within a logical radius.

That might only buy people an extra two to five minutes before the event, said Brown, “but if you are the operators of Bay Area Rapid Transit commuter trains, that’s enough time to slow all the trains down to five miles an hour. If you are Google, that’s enough time to park a bunch of hard drives in your server farm so that they’re better able to resist shaking and not be damaged too badly.”

Raising Standards

Cost, of course, will impact the take-up of resilient materials and tools. If it’s three times more expensive to build a home out of the resilient materials, a lot of builders aren’t going to want to because the home will be tougher to sell.

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FM Global’s Approvals division tests and certifies a variety of products aimed at mitigating disaster peril. That can help increase property owner confidence in these materials, particularly for commercial structures.

“When you’re betting millions of dollars and the future of your business — or at least the near-term future of your business — you really need to know that it’s going to work,” said Solly.

With just-in-time manufacturing, a company may have a few days’ worth of stock on hand rather than three months’ worth.

“So you can’t afford to be out of business for weeks, because your customers are going to go somewhere else for your product,” he said.

Building standards and codes can help drive adoption of resilient measures in both commercial and residential construction. But more work needs to be done to raise standards to meet the goal of resilience.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

If lives are saved in an earthquake, but a building is still damaged to the point where it needs to be torn down, said Brown “that building owner, that community, is going to have a much longer path to full recovery. We want the building codes strengthened to an immediate occupancy [goal] — we want people to be able to move right back into that building so there’s a much shorter window of disruption.

“It’s certainly better for me as the insurer,” he said, “but it’s even better for the guy that owns the building or runs his business out of it because now his employees still have a place to come to work and they can still get paid.”

Every single business able to minimize its downtime in this way helps the entire community be more resilient, he added. It creates that snowball effect in a good way. When businesses are able to stay open or reopen quickly, he said, workers don’t lose a meaningful amount of pay. Everybody’s in a better position to continue shopping and supporting the local economy.

“If you just shorten the line of people who are looking for some sort of federal aid, or state aid because they’ve had a massive financial disaster — maybe we can turn those into moderate to small financial disasters. That’s the key, I think, to communities being more resilient.”

Driving Demand

As the likelihood increases that property owners will experience a second loss or even third loss, some insurers are looking at ways to invest in resilience — a smarter long-term business plan than paying to rebuild again and again.

One new initiative is Lex Flood Ready, the product of a partnership between Lexington Insurance and The Flood Insurance Agency (TFIA). Flood Ready is a coverage enhancement for Lexington Private Market Flood clients that will not only indemnify property owners that suffer flood damage but will also provide the funds to rebuild them to a higher standard of resiliency when replacing floors and walls.

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Resilience proponents advocate a variety of approaches to encourage take-up, including tax credits, resilience grants, insurance incentives and other partnerships, as well as encouraging lenders to engage borrowers by making the flood risk assessments part of the mortgage process.

A certification scheme similar to LEED could also help drive resilience efforts. The UK is currently beta-testing a certification program called Home Quality Mark, developed by the Building Research Establishment (BRE). Properties are rated on stringent criteria that considers not just disaster resilience, but energy performance and cost, durability and environmental impact.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers.” — Michael Brown, VP and property manager, Golden Bear Insurance

That’s something builders would be able to use to add value to their properties, offsetting the cost of building in resilience and driving consumer demand for properties built to the highest standards.

With increased resilience will come questions for insurers, said Brown. “It will open up a can of worms.”

It will create something of an arms race among insurance companies, he said. “Who’s going to be the first one to figure out what’s the right way to insure that? What’s the right price? What are the right terms and conditions?” Admittedly, it’s a good problem to have.

Effecting real resilience is something leaders across the spectrum should be talking about, including brokers and carriers, government and research agencies, building products manufacturers, and corporate executives.

“Getting people from diverse perspectives thinking about it and talking about it is going to be the avenue to finding the right answers,” said Brown.

“That kind of mentality top to bottom in the industry is going to be necessary. It’s not the first time we’ve dealt with disruptive things and we will continue doing it. It’s what keeps the game interesting.” &

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