Risk Insider: Paula Vene Smith

The Risk Register: Dead or Alive?

By: | July 27, 2016 • 2 min read

Paula Vene Smith directs the Purposeful Risk Engagement Project (PREP) and is a professor at Grinnell College. Paula consults on risk in higher education, and has written Engaging Risk: A Guide for College Leaders. She can be reached at [email protected]

If your organization practices Enterprise Risk Management, senior leaders probably have endorsed a list of top risks that demand action.


Once ERM is in place, the list undergoes review — maybe annually. After a few cycles it’s time to ask: Are we practicing risk management or list management? A risk register can either drive change, or persist as a lifeless spreadsheet.

Use these questions to test the vitality of your institutional list:

How long is your register, and how often does it change?

In my research on higher education risk management, I spoke with leaders at small to mid-sized colleges. Institutions with lengthy risk registers (50-80 items) didn’t see much change from year to year.

Their annual review consists of “checking in” to make sure people are working on their risks. Organizations with shorter lists (5-15 items) saw higher turnover. They acknowledge progress, shift gears and set new goals.

Have entire areas been overlooked?

For the initial risk assessment at Grinnell College, we brought in consultants. They interviewed senior leaders and staff to identify risks.

The purpose of a risk register is to drive action. A short, dynamic list serves this purpose better than a compendium that makes people feel they’re chipping away at something so massive that no amount of effort can make a difference.

Remarkably, the “top seven” list they produced did not include risks related to student life. Later, it emerged that the person then serving as vice president of student affairs had such a confident attitude, he convinced the consultants there were no risks in his area that he couldn’t handle.

Reviewing the register internally, we agreed that student risks had to be recognized.

Does one item encompass several distinct risks?

Risk identification often starts with concerns about a broad area. When, for example, we resolved to add something about students, the initial risk description was wordy and cumbersome. By the next cycle, we recognized multiple risks: substance abuse, mental health services, Title IX processes and improved student retention. Separating these items helped us develop mitigation strategies.

What happens to a risk that drops off the list?

Some of the risk leaders I interviewed found no need to drop risks from the register. They pointed out that no significant risk is ever completely mitigated. Nonetheless, we refresh our “top 10” periodically. Once significant mitigation is in place, the item can move off — but we’ll continue to monitor progress. If the risk remains well managed, we check in more briefly and less frequently.

Can risks come off the list too soon?

In the first year we worked hard on developing a policy to protect minors. It felt great to remove that item from the register. But we still needed to conduct training, step up background checks, and assist program directors.


Should we have kept “minors on campus” on the register for another year? The time invested was not so different from that spent on top-priority items. Still, no harm was done by renaming this work as “monitoring.”

The purpose of a risk register is to drive action. A short, dynamic list serves this purpose better than a compendium that makes people feel they’re chipping away at something so massive that no amount of effort can make a difference.

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]