Risk managers strike a delicate balance
Who are you going to call?
"Part of our office mission is to think actively about all the 'what ifs' that could happen as a result of operating a world class teaching and research institution and to plan accordingly," said Laurel Harvey, director of the Office of Risk Management.
Harvey has been head of the office since its operations were consolidated about five years ago. Currently, she is responsible for all risk management and insurance functions, for the financial management of the University's employee health and disability plans and the student health plan, and for oversight of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
"The idea was that a more systematic approach to safety, health, disability management and loss prevention would strengthen the whole University's ability to evaluate risk, make decisions, minimize liability and keep insurance coordinated and cost effective," Harvey said.
Six employees work in the main risk management office in New South.
On a daily basis, the risk management staff is involved in everything from handling insurance claims for stolen or damaged University property to negotiating the best auto premium rates for University-owned vehicles (including garbage trucks and golf carts!) and from evaluating the risks of unusual class projects to giving advice on University staff and student travel.
"We are a caring group who happen to be good financial people," Harvey said. "That is our own special niche."
For example, last fall when the University decided to offer employees a dental insurance plan for the first time, Harvey's staff swung into action. They worked with a broker to solicit bids from insurance companies, collaborated with human resources staff members to evaluate proposals and reviewed the contract with legal counsel. One staff member even went door-to-door visiting office managers at dental practices that had dealt with the selected company to gauge their experience.
"I consider us to be on the line to make sure that there are no surprises after the fact," Harvey said.
Risk management employees also audit the University's various health insurance plans to make sure that employees are receiving all the benefits they are supposed to receive, that there are no billing errors and that premiums are being paid accurately. Such work has saved the University quite a bit of money over the years, Harvey said.
Savings through safety
However, her office has achieved the most effective cost savings through focusing on employee and student safety. The "safety" side of risk management is the Office of Environmental Health and Safety.
"What saves us the most money over the long term is attention and resources -- human and financial -- allocated to safety," Harvey said.
The 10 employees in environmental health and safety are located at 262 Alexander St. and report to director Garth Walters.
Walters' office has been working with the administration over the last few years to propose several changes affecting workplace safety. Last fall, President Shapiro announced that the University is requiring safety training for all faculty, staff and students who work in or have responsibility for managing laboratories. In addition, he reconstituted and expanded the responsibilities of the University Committee on Occupational Safety and Health to include developing policy and providing management oversight for all matters relating to environmental safety and risk management campuswide.
"The president has made it very clear that he supports a proactive approach in our management of safety and environmental issues," Walters said.
These new efforts are part of an ongoing program that makes the University a safer place to work. In addition to laboratory safety training, staff members in environmental health and safety regularly conduct training programs on such topics as ergonomics, accident investigation, electrical safety, safe chemical handling and disposal, and noise and hearing conservation. The sessions range from full-fledged workshops to short "toolbox talks" scheduled during other meetings. "Our staff works very hard to make compliance with safety requirements as easy as possible," Walters said.
Because risk management staff members administer the workers' compensation program, they have access to statistics on workplace injuries and can use this information to target injury prevention efforts when a pattern is observed. This information helps the environmental health and safety staff establish priorities for their safety classes for employees. The solution to a problem might be as simple as providing employees who spend a lot of time at computer keyboards with wrist rests and other ergonomic devices.
"We've developed a credibility that supervisors know we're not asking them to do things that don't make sense," Harvey said. "We pay attention to their own constraints and budgets. We're here to help, not to point fingers."
Should an accident happen on the job, risk management staff members work with employees to assist them through the recovery and help get them back to work. They make sure that medical bills are being paid and that employees are being seen by occupational medicine staff in University Health Services.
Other areas the Office of Risk Management handles include questions regarding vehicle accidents and insurance when faculty and staff members are traveling on business, getting prices for those one-of-a-kind insurance policies to cover a single high-risk event, developing and monitoring travel abroad guidelines for students, and providing advice on high-risk off-campus student activities.
Last year, Harvey was contacted by a faculty member in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering who wanted to take his class on a field trip to the Princeton Airport for hands-on flight instruction. In order to allow the project to go forward while also improving safety to students and minimizing the University's liability, she conducted a reference check with other clients of the flight school, hired a consultant to evaluate the facilities, interviewed the owner, ensured that the right kind of flight insurance was purchased and drafted a notification for the students' parents.
"We have a responsibility to do our homework to make sure that we reduce any risk we can through information and education, so that people go into it with their eyes open," Harvey said. "We don't usually tell them they can't do it -- we tell them how they can do it in a way that is appropriate and responsible."
That philosophy carries through in Harvey's overall approach to risk management.
"I have a very realistic approach: How can we make something work and not stifle employees and students?" she says. "The last thing I want are a lot of rules and policies that nobody pays attention to.
"It's very satisfying to be in an office where people take pride in what they do -- where everybody is on an overall mission of helping others to make the campus a safer place for all our students, faculty, staff and visitors," Harvey continued.