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Construction Risk Management in the Rollercoaster Recovery

Although the long-term forecast for the construction industry is robust, it is experiencing malaise as it recovers from the recession. Week after week, positive reports from the government are offset by negative industry news reports, only to be followed by yet another optimistic outlook. So goes the rollercoaster recovery.

The continuing uncertainty of the economic recovery makes strategic risk management more important than ever for contractors. Insurance and risk management — which are major expenses — can be a source of competitive advantage or disadvantage for construction firms.

Insurance is an important product, and its purchase should never be considered as a commodity. The value of having the right insurance coverage (by means of policy, endorsement or extension) and limits cannot be overstated. There are direct, indirect and opportunity costs, all of which can affect your bottom line. The intelligent buyer knows there is a difference between price and value.

Insurance is also an important service. The existing trends and emerging opportunities in the construction industry are driving specialized and customized insurance, surety and risk management solutions. The discipline of strategic risk management is one such development. It is recommended that your company partner with your insurance adviser to conduct a strategic risk analysis and to evaluate your company’sresilience and risk accountability culture.

It is important to embed a risk management mindset into strategic business planning processes. As a strategic discipline, risk management serves several important purposes, including decision making, risk and cost allocation and business-process improvement.

Contractors need to be mindful of two important concurrent developments:

1. Pressures in the construction insurance market
2. Changing nature, scope and complexity of risk in the construction industry

Pressures in the construction insurance market

The construction insurance market is experiencing pressure from various disruptive forces. Some of these occurred independent of the recession while others were made worse by the recession. In either case, these trends will continue to be disruptive:

• Growing severity of workers' compensation losses
• Escalating alternatives to traditional insurance including captives, owner- or contractor-controlled insurance programs (OCIPs/CCIPs) and subcontractor default insurance
• Increasing number of owner insolvencies and subcontractor defaults
• Increasing challenges on property and builders risk placements with coastal wind and other catastrophic loss exposures
• Rising threat of increasing general liability premiums
• Growing pressure on professional liability because of increasing frequency and severity of large design-related liability losses
• Increasing regulatory and administrative requirements for employee health benefits under the Affordable Care Act

Expanding risks in the construction industry

To further complicate matters, the level of risk in the construction industry continues to expand. A number of industry developments are continuing to change the risk profile at the individual company level and for the industry as a whole. The following representative eight industry trends illustrate the growing nature, scope and complexity of risk to be managed by contractors:

1. Expanding use of alternative construction delivery methods, including design/build and integrated project delivery
2. Growing number of accelerated fast-track projects
3. Changing project finance methods, including public/private partnerships
4. Expanding number of joint ventures to meet project capitalization and surety obligations
5. Reemerging skilled workforce shortage
6. Growing reliance on technology, and vulnerability to disruptions of business systems and networks
7. Expanding use of building information modeling (BIM) and online collaboration on construction design
8. Continuing migration of construction defect claims and litigation from residential to commercial construction

A word of caution: This list of risk trends and developments is not exhaustive. Other risk exposures and issues may be important for your company depending on your scope of work, industry sector and geographic region.

Conclusion

Risk is inherent to the construction industry. Risk management is the bedrock of the construction industry. There is opportunity in risk. Strategic risk management is not about saying no to opportunity. Rather, strategic risk management is focused on protecting your business from being blindsided by hidden risks and cascading costs.

Strategic risk management will help you remain calm and composed during the rollercoaster economic recovery. More importantly, strategic risk management helps contractors identify factors and make decisions that improve their competitiveness, growth, profitability and reputation.

How to Turn Workers’ Comp Into an Advantage

Workers’ compensation should be a win-win proposition for employers and employees, but many contractors describe it as an insurance and risk-management pain point. Workers’ compensation premium is a major part of contractors’ total insurance costs, and the indirect costs associated with claims are a significant multiplier.
Additionally, recent formula changes have caused some companies to receive a higher experience modification rate (EMR). The increasing use of prescription medications, improper use of medical services and diagnosis of comorbidity conditions (i.e., disorders related to a primary disease) among workers are boosting medical costs, which have surpassed lost-time indemnity benefits as the largest component of loss costs. And the construction industry’s workforce shortage is leading to the hiring of less-experienced workers, who are more vulnerable to injuries.

In short, employee injuries affect productivity, quality and profitability on projects, thereby affecting a company’s overall financial performance. As such, workers’ compensation can be either a competitive advantage or disadvantage.

Companies that do not gain control over their workers’ compensation processes will face pressures to reduce costs elsewhere or carry higher levels of unallocated overhead. The result will be felt by higher insurance costs, increased bid rates and decreased productivity yields, as well as squeezed profit margins.
Start with an audit

A workers’ compensation audit diagnoses relative strengths and weaknesses of policies, procedures and protocols, and provides a roadmap to improve performance. An insurance advisor can help evaluate the company’s capabilities in three important phases, each targeting a diferent focus and desired outcome (see chart).

It’s important to review injury and claim performance metrics. A comprehensive loss analysis of the number, type, frequency and severity of claims is useful, especially when compared with exposure (whether payroll, work hours or full-time equivalency). The median duration of lost workdays per lost workday case can be compared against industry metrics by type of contracting operation. Although these are lagging indicators, they provide clues about where to focus prevention-based activities that then can be monitored as leading indicators.
Larger contractors with more payroll exposure and more complex operations also may be interested in an alternative insurance program structure, such as intermediate or large-deductible, retrospectively rated and captive insurance programs. Many contractors seek to reinforce management accountability for workers’ compensation improvement by instituting premium-allocation and loss-cost chargebacks to operating divisions or departments. This information is useful in bonus program calculations.
A workers’ compensation audit should carefully consider the classifications of workers by job type and payroll code. Proper classification is essential to ensuring workers’ compensation premiums are being properly calculated. This helps prevent adjusted premiums or return premiums following a premium audit, and helps ensure proper classification of the company’s EMR. It may be advisable to review open major claim reserves well in advance of carriers filing unit stat reporting data for purposes of calculating EMRs.

Realities of Post-Disaster Data Recovery

The construction industry’s dependence on information technology systems continues to expand with the dramatic shift from document management to data management. With this reliance comes an increased vulnerability to business disruption. Data management, business continuity and post-disaster data recovery requires a shift in mindset from firefighting to fire prevention. Zero disruptions is a bold strategic imperative that provides a competitive advantage by enhancing field productivity, increasing office efficiency, reducing downtime and preventing data losses. Effective data backup and post-disaster recovery protocols are the essential steps to minimize business disruptions.

Data management today requires an enterprise view integrating a company’s increasingly complex networks. Data must be construed to encompass all information generated, received, transmitted, stored and retrieved throughout the organization. Additionally, data must be incorporated from its various physical and virtual locations, including mobile devices. Following are IT trends affecting AEC companies:

  • expansion of email as the predominant form of intra- and inter-company communication;
  • growth of online data mobility project management tools using smartphones and tablets to access and transmit data;
  • increased adoption of document imaging to replace paper recordkeeping files;
  • growth of enterprise resource planning (ERP) platform systems and integration with best-in-class specialty software programs;
  • estimators’ use of the same database to work from multiple locations on complex projects;
  • increased adoption of, and massive data files generated by, BIM;
  • emergence of hosted and cloud-based data recovery systems;
  • expansion of e-discovery in litigation, which raises expectations for (and increases the risks of ) record retention; and
  • proliferation of social media networks combined with bring-your-own-device policies, which creates new portals for hacking, malware and viruses.

The severity of natural disasters and the escalating number of man-made emergencies and technological disruptions compounds the construction industry’s dependence on IT systems. Many of these disruptions “only” result in temporary IT system shutdowns, while others pose a threat to the viability of the business.

A company’s vulnerability to data loss can be increased or decreased by the actions taken (or not taken) with regard to data backup and recovery. A robust business continuity plan is the first step. Companies have many choices when selecting the best way to back up their vital information and mission-critical data.

The Need for a Comprehensive Business Continuity Strategy

Automatic offsite (hosted or cloud-based) data backup protocols at regular intervals are the best prevention for data loss. These backups must be set for every type of data and for every type of device accessing, transmitting or storing information.

Another data recovery strategy is imaging the company’s server and running the restored replica image from a new server in a remote location. However, this strategy requires pre-planning. In a large-scale disaster, obtaining replacement servers may not be possible.

Causes, Costs and Consequences of Data Loss

Data disruption is a reality of the modern work environment. Causes of data loss include:

  • failure to initiate or maintain regular data backups;
  • hardware failure;
  • human error resulting in accidental deletion, overwriting of data or forgetting to add new IT systems/devices to backup protocols;
  • failure to test the backup and data recovery restoration process to determine adequacy;
  • software or application corruption;
  • power surges, brownouts and outages;
  • computer viruses, malware or hacking;
  • theft of IT equipment; and
  • hardware damage or destruction from vandalism, fire and water (rain, flood or sprinkler system discharge).

The consequences of lost data include direct loss of revenue from missing bid submissions or customer orders, direct expenses to pay for technical specialists to help recover data, decreased productivity during the shutdown and costs to re-key or obtain replacement data. For contractors selling directly to consumers, the loss of Internet connection for any extended time could prove costly. Lost data also can result in litigation for breach of confidential information plus adverse publicity.

A 2012 study commissioned by cloud-based data backup company Carbonite revealed 45% of small businesses (defined as fewer than 1,000 employees) had suffered a data loss. Fifty-four percent of the data losses were attributed to hardware failure, and the average cost for data recovery was $9,000.

Real-World Data Loss Scenarios

  • Laptop motherboard failure. A project estimator was working offline when the motherboard crashed. Because of a tight deadline, he had to restart the estimate from scratch. Although the bid was successfully submitted on time, the estimator fell behind on pricing other jobs that the company failed to win.
  • Lost iPhone. Pictures of a project safety incident with documentation of a mismarked “one-call system” utility spot were lost. The photo documentation had not been transmitted to the office, and the contractor lost the request for damages against the utility locating service. Moreover, the smartphone was not properly password-secured, allowing unauthorized access to contacts, client information and company data.
  • Desktop computer backup location not properly mapped to server. When a workstation was upgraded with a new desktop computer, it was not mapped to the server for automatic backup. The computer hard drive crashed, and no files were backed up. Recovery using the old desktop computer was slow, and data created on the new computer was lost.
  • New database not added to the nightly backup protocol. A company purchased a new customer relationship management database and, after a power outage, realized it had not been added to the nightly data backup protocol.
  • Onsite data backup location destroyed. The building housing an onsite backup server was struck by lightning, which started a fire and resulted in a total loss of all current and historical data.
  • Disaster recovery software not properly configured. While conducting a test of a company’s disaster recovery plan, it was discovered that some critical data was not being captured in the backup files.
  • Laptop and tablet stolen from a jobsite trailer. The field equipment had not been backed up for several weeks, resulting in the loss of key project documentation.

Best Practices for Data Management

Data management and IT network administration is a strategic, unique function for all companies. It is not possible to delineate all data management best practices, but the following guidelines should help enhance most companies’ post-disaster data recovery efforts:

  • Determine the company’s recovery-time objectives, and plan and budget accordingly. Identify which functions and systems must remain operational at the time of a disruption or disaster. This requires advance planning and budgeting for necessary systems and technical support services. It also helps prioritize risk-reduction strategies, including investments in data management backup system and security upgrades.
  • Develop a written business continuity plan that outlines specific responsibilities for protecting vital information and mission-critical data. The business continuity plan should include protocols for backup and synchronization of all office systems and virtual/mobile devices. It also should address the frequency and format for testing data management integrity and security, as well as how gaps will be identified and addressed.
  • Inventory the company’s vital information and mission-critical data, and verify it is being backed up. Key considerations include how the data is being backed up, by whom and how frequently, as well as where the backup data is stored. It is important to ensure the data backup and restoration process work as designed.
  • Initiate automatic scheduled backups, ensure the backup data is stored offsite, and test the adequacy of the data backup and restoration methods. Consider the added benefits of imaging the company’s servers to achieve a complete restoration of the data management system
  • Develop a comprehensive diagram of the company’s integrated data management network, including all physical and virtual/mobile subsystems. Ideally, this will be an “as built” blueprint of the company’s configuration consisting of the hardware, operating systems, software and applications that make up the data management network.
  • Institute policies regarding the use of the company’s Internet, including security protocols. Implement policies for user authentication, password verification, unacceptable personal devices and reporting of lost equipment. It is essential to communicate these policies and security protocols to all users and to train new employees.
  • Establish proactive management of the company’s data and IT network. Ensure the company’s network administrator has state-of-the-art tools, including remote access, help desk diagnostics and anti-spam and malware protection. Request periodic updates on all software licensing audits and verification that all security patch updates have been installed on a timely basis. Establish a fixed replacement schedule for hardware and software.

There is good news and bad news regarding business data management and recovery. The bad news is that the need for post-disaster data recovery can no longer be ignored. The increasingly complex and connected business world demands pre-planning for business continuity. The good news is that data management and recovery services are scalable to meet the custom needs of every business regardless of the size and scope of the operation and its degree of data dependence.

Reprinted with permission from Construction Executive, January 2014, a publication of Associated Builders and Contractors Services Corp. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.