Column: Roger's Soapbox

Function Over Form

By: | December 1, 2013 • 3 min read
Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

The most illustrative business story of 2013 was about a new 37-story skyscraper in the financial district of London, nicknamed the “Walkie Talkie.” It was built to resemble the shape of a handheld communicator, circa 1950. Apparently, building it to resemble an attractive and functional edifice was out of the question.


When the sun shone, the building focused the fiery orb’s beams into a death ray that “buckled” a parked Jaguar in the intense heat the building created. It allegedly melted the car’s mirrors, emblem and bodywork panels.

The row that followed was as funny as it was unseemly, but first, some background. London has two centers: the West End, where government largely sits, and the City, where global finance is headquartered. Lloyd’s, for example, is in the City; its building is also an “architectural statement.”

The West End features some of the loveliest architecture made by human beings over the past several hundred years. Those in the City, to show their thrusting power, relevance, sense of innovation and financial muscle, have taken to putting up only buildings that are meant to be ironically humorous.

Thus, the “Gherkin,” a pickle-shaped building. Thus, the “Shard,” a tall building that comes to a jagged point. Etc. And thus, the Walkie Talkie, which comes with its own death ray. All are unforgivably ugly.

A London news report on the heat generated by the Walkie Talkie building.

Older, classically designed buildings killed only interested parties: some who built them and those who jumped off them. The new buildings can kill innocent passers-by and warp Jags.
Good going, eh?

To render the death ray neutral, a specialist team of consultants was assembled. Asked why his building had a death ray, architect Rafael Viñoly blamed the superabundance of consultants and sub-consultants that British law requires. Architects aren’t architects anymore, he said, but he had already proved that.

Insurers should adopt a similar line. “High premiums,” they should snort, “are entirely the fault of consultants, and cannot be blamed on anyone employed by our industry.”

One is reminded of the New Yorker cartoon in which two detectives survey a corpse. “From the frequency and severity of the wounds,” the senior policeman remarked, “I’d say he was a management consultant.”

Measures to stop the Walkie Talkie from melting cars are only likely to cost around $1.6 million, the building’s developer has said. Another knowledgeable party estimated the repair cost in the “low single digit millions [of pounds].” So that’s alright then.


Here’s a revolutionary idea: Accept that we can’t design attractive buildings by making them look ironic and concentrate on putting up something less iconic and more functional. Focus on context: skyscrapers in New York, good; death ray buildings in London, bad.

We all know that when an insurance company erects its own building, it’s a sign that the company’s demise is at hand. Now when a city puts up buildings that can melt passers-by, it’s a sign that civilization’s demise is at hand.

We fear the new because it is untested. When the new turns out to be inimical to human life, our fears are revealed to be sensible. Come on, people, this isn’t rocket science; wise up.

The barbarians are at the gate, armed with death rays. Sheesh.

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]