Construction Risk

11 Critical Risks Facing the Construction Industry

Workers and employers in the construction industry continue to face numerous emerging risks and challenges.
By: | May 1, 2018 • 6 min read

From slips and falls and weather-related business interruption to fires and stolen equipment, construction sites will face innumerable risks every day. As a complex sector for insurance professionals to insure, the industry will need to prepare for these growing and emerging risks.

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Added to that, construction is booming in the U.S., leaving it vulnerable to even more dangers.

Builder’s risk insurance is designed to protect the structure or building, employees on site and the raw materials being used. But builder’s risk doesn’t cover for faulty workmanship or poor materials. Exclusive remedy in workers’ compensation is being challenged daily, as well, and is a pain point for contractors across the country and particularly in New York, where the Scaffold Law has opened the door to hundreds of thousands spent on litigation. On top of that, increased frequency and severity of natural disasters has delayed sites from completing projects on time, hurting productivity and increasing the need for business interruption coverage.

Construction risk managers and contractors need to be on the top of their game. Know the risks involved; learn how to prevent them from happening. Whether its residential or commercial, a project needs a keen eye from start to finish.

1) Shifting Workforce

The skilled labor shortage, an aging workforce and an influx of inexperienced workers is driving up costly accidents and injuries on construction sites.

The Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) wanted to put a number to the talent gap, conducting a survey that questioned contractors about their current workforce. AGC found that 78 percent of firms are having trouble finding qualified workers.

Labor-shortage pain hit home when long-term workers were laid off during the U.S.’s economic downturn a few years back. More than two million jobs were lost. Add to that an aging population — baby boomers are continuing to retire at rapid pace — and few millennials entering into this manual labor career.

It’s a recipe for disaster.

Around 21 percent of construction industry employees are age 55 and older, while just 9 percent are 24 or younger. This leads to a heightened risk of injury or illness due to less experience in the field and few mentors to help the younger generation learn best practices. Construction holds the lead in all industries with the total number of worker deaths each year.

Not to mention, as more women enter into construction, the industry has yet to embrace safe equipment for them.

2) Construction Defect

With a less-experienced workforce, long-tail construction defect claims are on the rise.

Construction defects refer specifically to any defect in the design, workmanship or in the materials used on a project. (Think of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, sinking into the earth because its builders didn’t check the surrounding soil conditions.)

Construction defect claims arise from mishaps of all sizes and types of projects. The payout can be steep if a court rules in favor of the plaintiff.

These defects are resulting in failures to buildings or structures and leading to property damage and human injury. Construction defect claims arise from mishaps of all sizes and types of projects. And while commercial general liability (CGL) insurance is designed to protect construction companies from such claims, the payout can be steep if a court rules in favor of the plaintiff.

There are also exclusions to CGL that will leave a construction firm vulnerable if a construction defect claim arises. These exclusions include pollution, electronic data and war, to name a few.

3) Contractual Risk

Owners continue to shift more liability to contractors via contract language. This is especially tricky when it comes to workers injured on a construction site.

Contracts are used to bend the exclusive remedy provision of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This provision provides workers with compensation in the event of injury or illness while protecting employers from being sued for liability by workers injured on the job. Workers’ compensation acts as the sole remedy to address workplace injury.

Mark A. Lies, labor attorney, Seyfarth Shaw LLP

Sometimes the wording in a contract drawn up between a subcontractor and a general contractor may state that the subcontractor waives its right to the exclusive remedy protections of the Workers’ Compensation Act. This could then expose the subcontractor to a personal injury claim by its own employee, explained Mark A. Lies, labor attorney, Seyfarth Shaw LLP.

In many of these cases, the subcontractor does not realize they waived their exclusive remedy protection until an employee injury occurs. When this happens, the third party is protected by workers’ compensation if a worker is injured, but the contractor is left vulnerable to personal injury liability suits.

“We see potential waivers all the time,” added Lies.

4) Overextension

Increasing demand may drive general contractors and subcontractors to take on larger or more projects than they have the capacity to handle. This not only acts as a huge safety risk, but overextension can also exacerbate defects and site accidents.

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Building is booming in the U.S.; billion-dollar projects are no longer “abnormal” in construction anymore. And with contractors working to keep their firm ahead of the competition, it’s no wonder they’re taking on too big of projects with little bandwidth or resources to complete all of them. In fact, many overextend and take on projects outside their scope of practice.

When looking at the top five reasons why contractors fail, unrealistic growth — which includes overextension and taking on too much work — ranked as number one with 37 percent.

When looking at the top five reasons why contractors fail, unrealistic growth — which includes overextension and taking on too much work — ranked as number one with 37 percent, according to Surety Information Online. Performance issues, which includes inexperience with new scopes or types of work, came in at a close second with 36 percent.

Beyond construction, underwriters for the construction industry are feeling the pinch as more construction sites aim to take on bigger and broader jobs. The sheer volume of the work is a concern for underwriters, particularly projects costing billions of dollars.

5) Fire

Poorly managed hot work activities or shortfalls in site security, especially in wood-framed construction, can result in costly losses.

A construction site fire isn’t that uncommon. A single spark from a sander, welder, a cigarette, electrical wire, temporary lighting and the like will easily set wood, solvents, packaging or gasoline — all found on construction sites — up in flames.

Fire risk in renovation construction is especially high, because older homes and buildings contain studs that start in the basement and run up to the top of the house. If a fire were to start, the very core holding the building up could send a flame throughout the entire structure.

Munich Re released a fire loss prevention guide specifically for construction sites. It noted fire needs three things to become self-sustaining: heat, combustible material and oxygen.

Construction sites will have all three at any given moment throughout the building process because of the very nature of its work. Ensure the heat, material and oxygen are not combined in an uncontrolled manner. Training is key.

6) Site Protection

Unattended jobsites can result in unknown damage from leaking or frozen pipes, smoldering hot work, and theft/vandalism of equipment and materials.

A well-lit, fenced in construction site is less likely to be vandalized than one with nothing guarding it. Unfortunately, not all sites will have extensive security during its off hours, and unattended projects are vulnerable to damage and vandalism.

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One pipe with a small crack can leak more than 250 gallons of water per day, destroying walls, floors and tools if they are in the line of fire. Draining the pipes or keeping a site warm are two methods to protect pipes from leaking, freezing or bursting and save thousands on replacement and repair.

In addition, the price of stolen materials can add up. Losses in construction theft estimate $1 billion annually. A construction site will face the indirect costs of increased insurance premiums, rental costs to replace stolen equipment and machinery, and lost productivity while waiting to replace inventory.

There are some ways to protect against unwanted vandals, which can prevent loss on construction sites. Contractors should keep detailed records of all materials, secure equipment in safe places when not in use and register the construction site’s heavy equipment with their insurer.

Additional Risks

7) Natural Disasters

8) Financing Big Projects

9) Regulatory Change

10) New Technologies

11) Missed Deadlines

For your own chance to rank the top growing risks in construction, visit Risk & Insurance®’s Construction Risk List, where you can decide which risks are most pressing. You can then submit your answers and see what other risk professionals had to say about the top construction risks. &

Autumn Heisler is the digital producer and a staff writer at Risk & Insurance®. She can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Exclusive | Hank Greenberg on China Trade, Starr’s Rapid Growth and 100th, Spitzer, Schneiderman and More

In a robust and frank conversation, the insurance legend provides unique insights into global trade, his past battles and what the future holds for the industry and his company.
By: | October 12, 2018 • 12 min read

In 1960, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg was hired as a vice president of C.V. Starr & Co. At age 35, he had already accomplished a great deal.

He served his country as part of the Allied Forces that stormed the beaches at Normandy and liberated the Nazi death camps. He fought again during the Korean War, earning a Bronze Star. He held a law degree from New York Law School.

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Now he was ready to make his mark on the business world.

Even C.V. Starr himself — who hired Mr. Greenberg and later hand-picked him as the successor to the company he founded in Shanghai in 1919 — could not have imagined what a mark it would be.

Mr. Greenberg began to build AIG as a Starr subsidiary, then in 1969, he took it public. The company would, at its peak, achieve a market cap of some $180 billion and cement its place as the largest insurance and financial services company in history.

This month, Mr. Greenberg travels to China to celebrate the 100th anniversary of C.V. Starr & Co. That visit occurs at a prickly time in U.S.-Sino relations, as the Trump administration levies tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars in Chinese goods and China retaliates.

In September, Risk & Insurance® sat down with Mr. Greenberg in his Park Avenue office to hear his thoughts on the centennial of C.V. Starr, the dynamics of U.S. trade relationships with China and the future of the U.S. insurance industry as it faces the challenges of technology development and talent recruitment and retention, among many others. What follows is an edited transcript of that discussion.


R&I: One hundred years is quite an impressive milestone for any company. Celebrating the anniversary in China signifies the importance and longevity of that relationship. Can you tell us more about C.V. Starr’s history with China?

Hank Greenberg: We have a long history in China. I first went there in 1975. There was little there, but I had business throughout Asia, and I stopped there all the time. I’d stop there a couple of times a year and build relationships.

When I first started visiting China, there was only one state-owned insurance company there, PICC (the People’s Insurance Company of China); it was tiny at the time. We helped them to grow.

I also received the first foreign life insurance license in China, for AIA (The American International Assurance Co.). To date, there has been no other foreign life insurance company in China. It took me 20 years of hard work to get that license.

We also introduced an agency system in China. They had none. Their life company employees would get a salary whether they sold something or not. With the agency system of course you get paid a commission if you sell something. Once that agency system was installed, it went on to create more than a million jobs.

R&I: So Starr’s success has meant success for the Chinese insurance industry as well.

Hank Greenberg: That’s partly why we’re going to be celebrating that anniversary there next month. That celebration will occur alongside that of IBLAC (International Business Leaders’ Advisory Council), an international business advisory group that was put together when Zhu Rongji was the mayor of Shanghai [Zhu is since retired from public life]. He asked me to start that to attract foreign companies to invest in Shanghai.

“It turns out that it is harder [for China] to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

Shanghai and China in general were just coming out of the doldrums then; there was a lack of foreign investment. Zhu asked me to chair IBLAC and to help get it started, which I did. I served as chairman of that group for a couple of terms. I am still a part of that board, and it will be celebrating its 30th anniversary along with our 100th anniversary.

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We have a good relationship with China, and we’re candid as you can tell from the op-ed I published in the Wall Street Journal. I’m told that my op-ed was received quite well in China, by both Chinese companies and foreign companies doing business there.

On August 29, Mr. Greenberg published an opinion piece in the WSJ reminding Chinese leaders of the productive history of U.S.-Sino relations and suggesting that Chinese leaders take pragmatic steps to ease trade tensions with the U.S.

R&I: What’s your outlook on current trade relations between the U.S. and China?

Hank Greenberg: As to the current environment, when you are in negotiations, every leader negotiates differently.

President Trump is negotiating based on his well-known approach. What’s different now is that President Xi (Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China) made himself the emperor. All the past presidents in China before the revolution had two terms. He’s there for life, which makes things much more difficult.

R&I: Sure does. You’ve got a one- or two-term president talking to somebody who can wait it out. It’s definitely unique.

Hank Greenberg: So, clearly a lot of change is going on in China. Some of it is good. But as I said in the op-ed, China needs to be treated like the second largest economy in the world, which it is. And it will be the number one economy in the world in not too many years. That means that you can’t use the same terms of trade that you did 25 or 30 years ago.

They want to have access to our market and other markets. Fine, but you have to have reciprocity, and they have not been very good at that.

R&I: What stands in the way of that happening?

Hank Greenberg: I think there are several substantial challenges. One, their structure makes it very difficult. They have a senior official, a regulator, who runs a division within the government for insurance. He keeps that job as long as he does what leadership wants him to do. He may not be sure what they want him to do.

For example, the president made a speech many months ago saying they are going to open up banking, insurance and a couple of additional sectors to foreign investment; nothing happened.

The reason was that the head of that division got changed. A new administrator came in who was not sure what the president wanted so he did nothing. Time went on and the international community said, “Wait a minute, you promised that you were going to do that and you didn’t do that.”

So the structure is such that it is very difficult. China can’t react as fast as it should. That will change, but it is going to take time.

R&I: That’s interesting, because during the financial crisis in 2008 there was talk that China, given their more centralized authority, could react more quickly, not less quickly.

Hank Greenberg: It turns out that it is harder to change, because they have one leader. My guess is that we’ll work it out sooner or later. Trump and Xi have to meet. That will result in some agreement that will get to them and they will have to finish the rest of the negotiations. I believe that will happen.

R&I: Obviously, you have a very unique perspective and experience in China. For American companies coming to China, what are some of the current challenges?

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Hank Greenberg: Well, they very much want to do business in China. That’s due to the sheer size of the country, at 1.4 billion people. It’s a very big market and not just for insurance companies. It’s a whole range of companies that would like to have access to China as easily as Chinese companies have access to the United States. As I said previously, that has to be resolved.

It’s not going to be easy, because China has a history of not being treated well by other countries. The U.S. has been pretty good in that way. We haven’t taken advantage of China.

R&I: Your op-ed was very enlightening on that topic.

Hank Greenberg: President Xi wants to rebuild the “middle kingdom,” to what China was, a great country. Part of that was his takeover of the South China Sea rock islands during the Obama Administration; we did nothing. It’s a little late now to try and do something. They promised they would never militarize those islands. Then they did. That’s a real problem in Southern Asia. The other countries in that region are not happy about that.

R&I: One thing that has differentiated your company is that it is not a public company, and it is not a mutual company. We think you’re the only large insurance company with that structure at that scale. What advantages does that give you?

Hank Greenberg: Two things. First of all, we’re more than an insurance company. We have the traditional investment unit with the insurance company. Then we have a separate investment unit that we started, which is very successful. So we have a source of income that is diverse. We don’t have to underwrite business that is going to lose a lot of money. Not knowingly anyway.

R&I: And that’s because you are a private company?

Hank Greenberg: Yes. We attract a different type of person in a private company.

R&I: Do you think that enables you to react more quickly?

Hank Greenberg: Absolutely. When we left AIG there were three of us. Myself, Howie Smith and Ed Matthews. Howie used to run the internal financials and Ed Matthews was the investment guy coming out of Morgan Stanley when I was putting AIG together. We started with three people and now we have 3,500 and growing.

“I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.” — Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, chairman and CEO, C.V. Starr & Co. Inc.

R&I:  You being forced to leave AIG in 2005 really was an injustice, by the way. AIG wouldn’t have been in the position it was in 2008 if you had still been there.

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Hank Greenberg: Absolutely not. We had all the right things in place. We met with the financial services division once a day every day to make sure they stuck to what they were supposed to do. Even Hank Paulson, the Secretary of Treasury, sat on the stand during my trial and said that if I’d been at the company, it would not have imploded the way it did.

R&I: And that fateful decision the AIG board made really affected the course of the country.

Hank Greenberg: So many people lost all of their net worth. The new management was taking on billions of dollars’ worth of risk with no collateral. They had decimated the internal risk management controls. And the government takeover of the company when the financial crisis blew up was grossly unfair.

From the time it went public, AIG’s value had increased from $300 million to $180 billion. Thanks to Eliot Spitzer, it’s now worth a fraction of that. His was a gross misuse of the Martin Act. It gives the Attorney General the power to investigate without probable cause and bring fraud charges without having to prove intent. Only in New York does the law grant the AG that much power.

R&I: It’s especially frustrating when you consider the quality of his own character, and the scandal he was involved in.

In early 2008, Spitzer was caught on a federal wiretap arranging a meeting with a prostitute at a Washington Hotel and resigned shortly thereafter.

Hank Greenberg: Yes. And it’s been successive. Look at Eric Schneiderman. He resigned earlier this year when it came out that he had abused several women. And this was after he came out so strongly against other men accused of the same thing. To me it demonstrates hypocrisy and abuse of power.

Schneiderman followed in Spitzer’s footsteps in leveraging the Martin Act against numerous corporations to generate multi-billion dollar settlements.

R&I: Starr, however, continues to thrive. You said you’re at 3,500 people and still growing. As you continue to expand, how do you deal with the challenge of attracting talent?

Hank Greenberg: We did something last week.

On September 16th, St. John’s University announced the largest gift in its 148-year history. The Starr Foundation donated $15 million to the school, establishing the Maurice R. Greenberg Leadership Initiative at St. John’s School of Risk Management, Insurance and Actuarial Science.

Hank Greenberg: We have recruited from St. John’s for many, many years. These are young people who want to be in the insurance industry. They don’t get into it by accident. They study to become proficient in this and we have recruited some very qualified individuals from that school. But we also recruit from many other universities. On the investment side, outside of the insurance industry, we also recruit from Wall Street.

R&I: We’re very interested in how you and other leaders in this industry view technology and how they’re going to use it.

Hank Greenberg: I think technology can play a role in reducing operating expenses. In the last 70 years, you have seen the expense ratio of the industry rise, and I’m not sure the industry can afford a 35 percent expense ratio. But while technology can help, some additional fundamental changes will also be required.

R&I: So as the pre-eminent leader of the insurance industry, what do you see in terms of where insurance is now an where it’s going?

Hank Greenberg: The country and the world will always need insurance. That doesn’t mean that what we have today is what we’re going to have 25 years from now.

How quickly the change comes and how far it will go will depend on individual companies and individual countries. Some will be more brave than others. But change will take place, there is no doubt about it.

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More will go on in space, there is no question about that. We’re involved in it right now as an insurance company, and it will get broader.

One of the things you have to worry about is it’s now a nuclear world. It’s a more dangerous world. And again, we have to find some way to deal with that.

So, change is inevitable. You need people who can deal with change.

R&I:  Is there anything else, Mr. Greenberg, you want to comment on?

Hank Greenberg: I think I’ve covered it. &

The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]