They deal with everything from
hazardous waste to toilet bowl
They are concerned about slippery floors and cracks in sidewalks.
They discuss splinters, skateboarders and medical malpractice on a regular basis.
They are the UA's guardian angels.
And very few people know who THEY are.
They'll say who they are is not as important as what they do. And what they do is watch over every conceivable safety concern on the University of Arizona campus.
They are the Department of Risk Management and they have their work cut out for them.
The UA has 7 million square feet of floorspace, 155 permanent buildings, an unknown number of temporary structures, 12,000 employees and 35,000 students (during a normal school year) and the employees of Risk Management are responsible for the safety of all of them.
"If you want to pick 14 people who actually know how things work on this campus and know how to keep them working, you don't have to look any farther than this building," said Alan Lee, Risk Management's insurance officer. "We're dealing with a great number of people every day on this campus. And the staff in this office enable the university to work."
As risk management's sole insurance officer, Lee deals with every claim made against the university, about 600 a year. Claims range anywhere from the one filed the employee who suffered irreversible damage after being exposed to beryllium gas in the basement of the Gould-Simpson Building to the woman who got a splinter from a chair in one of UA's many classrooms.
Risk Management also handles assessment and repair of all property damage done to the UA, be it from storms, fire or vandals.
And a compilation of claim records from the last 20 years could probably give a more accurate history of events at the UA than most alumni's memories.
For instance, since 1974 one property damage claim has been filed under the category riot or civil commotion. Lee said this was most likely due to $1,095 in damage that was done to the Administration building during a July 1993 Mount Graham protest. One claim of earthquake damage was filed and received $970. Fifty thousand dollars has been spent in repairing damage done by four unusually fierce Tucson hail storms and more than $7,000 dollars has gone to repair damage from 12 floods.
Not surprisingly, the most common workers compensation claims filed Ä 7,209 over 20 years Ä have been for sprains, strains and lacerations, resulting in more than $7 million dollars in liabilities. But 15 claims of sunburn or radiation effects have also been filed and received more than $2,000 and five claims of frostbite or freezing for $213.
All large organizations, especially public institutions such as the UA, are subject to liabilities and regulatory constraints. Nobody knows this better than Steven C. Holland, director of Risk Management. He said his staff's job is to minimize all safety hazards on campus, hence reducing negligence claims and the university's liabilities.
"Things happen," Holland said. "In a big campus like this you have on any given day a city of 50,000 people, and
people fall and trip. You've got thousands of vehicles trying to drive through skinny streets and bicyclists and skateboarders and roller bladers. It's a crowded place and accidents happen."
In 1994, 435 claims were filed against the UA and more than $2 million was paid in liabilities with $1 million of that coming from medical malpractice claims against medical residents in training at University Medical Center.
Over the past 20 years risk management has handled almost 20,000 claims and paid more than $49 million in liabilities. This number includes more than $38 million for medical malpractice. In 1974 and into the late 1970s no differentiation was made between UMC and the college of medicine which led to the unusually high malpractice liabilities.
Property claims for the same 20-year period amounted to more than $7 million and workers compensation expenditures were more than $13 million.
Spending money to save money
It is important to note that these figures include the amount spent to defend cases in which the university may ultimately be found innocent of any negligence.
"One of the under-appreciated things that we do is that even if you get named in a suit and the charges are dropped you may have spent $50,000 just to get to the point where they drop it," Lee said. "A tremendous amount of our liability cost goes into saying we are not the guilty party."
Although these numbers seem high, Lee said out of the 138 Arizona state agencies the UA is ranked the fifth-lowest in workers compensation and is comparable in liabilities with other research universities.
"Our research is safe but the very nature of a research university is that you have contracts to do things that have never been done before," Lee said. "This poses inherent risks over universities that are simply teaching the same old stuff."
"Frivolous" lawsuits are a matter of perspective
Like most large organizations the UA gets its fair share of questionable claims. Although Lee said he handles about one of these a week most of them never reach the lawsuit stage.
"It's all a matter of perspective," Lee said. "I mean what's vital to one person may be frivolous to another."
Lee recalls one incident where a man filed a claim against a UA researcher who he said planted a control device in his head.
"His claim was that this control device was part of an experiment that ruined his entire life," Lee said. "Its amazing what people will do and say sometimes. This job can get quite hectic but if you can look at the humor in some of the claims it can also be quite fulfilling."
Another series of claims that Lee remembers came out of a residence hall.
"We had two roomates who somehow developed bed bug problems and were making claims against each other and the UA."
To take a pro-active stance against claims risk management tries to identify safety problems before someone gets hurt. Many of these safety decisions are unpopular with some segments of the campus community.
One such recent project was the construction of a fence along the sloping concrete walls of the Highland Avenue underpass.
Since the construction of the underpass the walls have been a hot spot for skateboarders and mountain bikers who used them as ramps. Holland said he received numerous complaints about the skateboarders from people who were afraid they were going to run into them.
So, he acquired a few thousand dollars from his $50,000 annual repair budget and built a fence.
"We were waiting for someone to get hit over there," Holland said. "We started getting complaints about the skateboarders right after we opened it."
Another project risk management received some grief over was the installation of the blue steel poles placed in the sidewalk north of the Administration Building to keep people from driving in that area.
"People just hated those things," Holland said. "They used to have locks on them and we tried to arrange with departments for them to have keys but lots of times the poles weren't getting locked back up. Then we had someone trip over the pole and have to go to the emergency room. So then we had to weld them in place.
"It's a continuing struggle to convince the rest of the campus that these are important issues and that every time a claim has to be paid or a lawsuit has to be settled or an attorney has to be paid that cost all of us more money because we have to pay a higher premium on our insurance. People just don't see that. It's invisible to most of the campus."
Currently, Lee said, the UA's insurance premium is $5,514,900 but is expected to increase by about $2 million next year.
Holland said another area where risk management has a few critics is in laboratories and with custodial workers. Many students and employees who work around potentially dangerous chemicals must comply with detailed Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. If they do not it is Risk Management's job to report it.
Although OSHA regulations can add some tedious steps to an everyday job, many employees appreciate Risk Management's involvement in what they do.
"I'm sure some of the guys do complain about the regulations but they are something that they have to abide by," said Denny Hawkings, superintendent of shops in the department of facilities management. "Some things are very time-consuming but we work very closely with Risk Management and they take care of our safety needs. They're sort of our protector."
"With a campus this size you couldn't survive without risk management," he said. "Almost definitely this department is vital to this university and they back us up and protect us."
One person who can sympathize with UA employees who must comply with OSHA regulations is Herb Wagner. Having worked seven years as a lab supervisor before joining Risk Management 10 years ago as the occupational and fire safety officer, Wagner knows his job from both sides.
"Some people feel that some of our safety efforts hinder or hamper their work," Wagner said. "But that is not the majority opinion. For the most part we are welcomed into the labs."
The Gittings fire
One of Wagner's biggest projects in the last ten years was the August, 1993 fire in the Gittings Building. The fire started when sparks from a welder's torch ignited foam padding in a gymnastics workout room. It caused $2.1 million in damage.
"The Gittings Building fire was the biggest we have ever had at the UA," Wagner said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime incident."
Besides being the liaison between the Tucson Fire Department, the state insurance adjustor and Risk Management, Wagner said, he was involved in reconstruction and relocation for the people whose work areas were destroyed.
"We were basically the hub of the activity for recovery," Wagner said.
In a less-catastrophic vein, Wagner recalls an interesting case he was called in on a couple of years ago.
"We had a situation in the Education Building where a strange phenomenon was occuring," Wagner said. "Apparently paper clips were being flung out of nowhere and hitting a female employee in the head."
Risk Management tried for a couple of weeks to identify where the mysterious paper clips were coming from. They checked air ducts and blue prints of the building.
Finally an employee in the office called in a psychic who said someone had died in the office and was responsible for the flying paper clips.
"One person in the office was so upset that she was going to take some time off just to get away from the paper clips," Wagner said.
In a last-ditch effort, Risk Management installed a video camera in the office. Within a couple of days a culprit was discovered. She was a co-worker in the office who had constructed a rubber band device which she used to fling the paper clips.
Although this case might have been an interesting diversion from the normal work day, Wagner said, it is not the type of work the people at Risk Management prefer to do.
"It was such a waste of our time," Wagner said. "It seems when people exhaust all their other resources they come to us. I don't know if it's because of our good reputation about being able to figure things out or what. But we seem to be the last resort."
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