2018 Risk All Star: Jim Cunningham

The ‘Lunch Pail’ Risk Manager: Investing in a Hands-On Approach to Mitigating Risk

Pinnacle’s Jim Cunningham, a 2018 Risk All Star winner, displayed a persistent, pragmatic approach to controlling losses.
By: | September 14, 2018 • 2 min read

Jim Cunningham brings a “lunch-pail” mentality to risk management. He’s not concerned with quick fixes or silver-bullet theories. In this view, the daily grind always creates the best solutions.

That mentality is leading him to excel at Pinnacle Entertainment, where he serves as vice president of risk management. The company owns 15 casinos and employs 16,000 people — and had a serious problem with runaway workers’ comp claims.

Jim Cunningham, vice president, risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment

Traditional risk management would say to study the losses and build loss-control plans. Kitchen staff experiencing too many cuts? Put a cut-prevention plan in place.

“That traditional approach to risk control always bothered me,” said Cunningham. “I wanted to see if there was a more proactive way of managing that process.”

Instead, he implemented predictive modeling to determine which tasks and conditions were most susceptible to accidents — and which safe behaviors should be replicated companywide.

To gather the data, he deputized the company’s thousands of people managers and had them observe employees performing normal tasks, noting the behaviors or conditions that could lead to losses, as well as the positive behaviors workers displayed.

For a line cook preparing an omelet, for example, the manager watched wrist and shoulder positions, arm extension, bending and twisting.

Do they have to make extra motions? Do they have to constantly bend down to pick things up?

From there, Cunningham crunched the numbers and predicted how many accidents were likely at each property, recommending training or changes to work conditions.

A major finding was that training and task execution were not standard among the 15 properties.

“We were telling team members to get the job done, but we weren’t telling them how,” said Cunningham.

“As a result, team members were trying to accomplish these tasks any way they could, and that freelancing was creating injuries. By refining the processes and giving clear and concise instruction to our team members, we were cutting down on injuries left and right.”

“If you roll up sleeves, grab your lunch pail and do the very important day-to-day tasks, you’ll help people perform their jobs safely and generate positive outcomes that affect everyone.” — Jim Cunningham, vice president, risk management, Pinnacle Entertainment

The results speak for themselves. Claims frequency dropped 60 percent during the first year of the program and no less than 30 percent each year thereafter. Meanwhile the program continues to return double-digit savings.


“He’s always looking at cutting-edge ways to stay a step ahead,” said Steve Garvy, president of The Garvy Group, a hospitality risk consulting group that worked with Cunningham on this project.

“He’s not one of these risk managers who operates at 30,000 feet. We went to the properties and walked through the kitchens. We watched people make beds, clean toilets and do laundry. Spending that time in the trenches really helped us get a grasp on the gravity of the problems.”

Penn Gaming has agreed to acquire Pinnacle, and Cunningham will serve as vice president of risk management of the combined organization once the deal officially closes. It’s a worthy reward for his hard work, insight and hustle.

“If you roll up sleeves, grab your lunch pail and do the very important day-to-day tasks,” said Cunningham, “you’ll help people perform their jobs safely and generate positive outcomes that affect everyone.” &


Risk All Stars stand out from their peers by overcoming challenges through exceptional problem solving, creativity, clarity of vision and passion.

See the complete list of 2018 Risk All Stars.

Jared Shelly is a journalist based in Philadelphia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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]