Is Paris Burning?
Aug 23, 2018

No, but just about everything else is. The good folks at Allianz have just issued a remarkable new report on the current California wildfires. While the focus is on last year’s fires and the fires still burning as of this writing, the report also looks at the developing history of wildfires across the American west. “Since 1980, the average number of wildfires that cover more than 1,000 acres has risen to about 250 from 140 and the average length of wildfire season has increased to seven months from five months,” according to the report. Total losses from the 2017 fire season, which has already been eclipsed by the monster fires of the current season, will run in excess of $16,000,000,000.

But the recent past is not the real point of the report. This is: “’The areas where wildfires are taking place are always areas that [have become] drier and hotter, and where spring has come earlier. They really take off and get out of control more frequently than in the past,’ said Jason Funk, senior climate scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which predicted greater intensity of wildfires over the next century.” Last year’s fires were called a one in 200 years event, but this year is already worse. In other words, we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

For the moment, agriculture is the industry taking the major hit from wildfires. Just smoke damage from a nearby fire can put a vineyard out of commission for a year; direct fire damage puts the vines back three or four years or more. But a drive through the grasslands and scrub forests of the American west shows another exposure, one that may be in your portfolio even if you never touch a wine grape. This is where many industries are grabbing inexpensive land to build distribution centers, light manufacturing facilities and, as if Russian hackers weren’t hazard enough, major server farms.

Last year’s Tubbs fire and the still burning Carr fire were not picky about racing through the fringes of Santa Rosa and Redding respectively, burning houses, outbuildings and small businesses. Have you reviewed your facilities recently for proximity to grasslands and scrub forests? Are your people keeping grass and weeds down and away from your buildings? Are the roofs fire retardant? Are the yards and parking areas around your structures kept free of flammable junk and stuff generally?

Wildfires don’t stop at the city limits. They are not intimidated by chain-link fences and No Trespassing signs. They go where the wind carries them and where dry weather provides ample fuel. Smokey the Bear’s problems are your problems—and they’re only getting worse.

The More We Know...

Back around the year 1900, one of the greatest living scientists of the age, Lord Kelvin, said, “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” He said that just a few years before that obscure patent clerk, Einstein, published his first ideas about relativity. We’ve learned to be humble about what we think we know. Another example of how life is still full of surprises can be found in last month’s issue of The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM).

What’s surprising is the link recently discovered by a group of researchers between the incidence of diabetes and… air pollution. Now faithful readers of this rag will recall that in late June we reported on a National Safety Council report linking hearing loss with smoking and exposure to solvents. It’s beginning to seem like the world is full of co-active loss factors. As a risk manager, you have little to do with ambient air pollution or diabetes directly. The important point here is to be alert for other possible co-active loss drivers which may actually belong on your desk.

A simple example—age and driver safety training. You may think that a solid safety training program should be right for all of your drivers, but research conducted by yours truly has shown that accident frequency by type varies considerably by driver age. Older drivers are much more prone to sideswipe accidents and other incidents related to depth perception than are young drivers. On the other hand, those same young drivers are much more likely to rear-end another vehicle due to distracted driving issues. Older drivers are also more accident prone in low-light situations, so a single training or refresher regime may not be ideal for all of your drivers.

The diabetes and air pollution nexus should remind all of us to look beyond the obvious relationships when tracking down loss drivers. Check out unlikely correlations, follow up on oddball anecdotes. The world is certainly more complicated than Lord Kelvin realized and it may fool the rest of us from time to time as well.

ADA's Back in Town

As every statistician knows, life is lumpy. Nothing flows smoothly from week to week, unruffled with each dependent variable neatly tucked in its cell on your spreadsheet. Our latest case in point is the recent uptick in major ADA-related court decisions. An excellent discussion of three notable decisions by Myra Creighton of Fisher Phillips LLP outlines some pretty clear parameters for employers who prefer to stay on the right side of ADA law. Apropos of which, the best free legal advice your humble scribe ever got from a JD was simply this: “Never, ever have your name on a landmark Supreme Court decision.”

All three of the decisions profiled in this article center on the concept of whether a specific job requirement is a genuine Essential Function of the job in question. In ADA-speak, the phrase “essential function” has a very specific meaning. As M.s Creighton explains: “Simply put, essential functions are the basic job duties that an employee must be able to perform in order to get the job done.” While that may sound obvious, the courts have a number of ideas concerning the conditions that define a genuine essential function.

Each of the three decisions examined looks at a different aspect of the question:


A UPS case looks at what requirements are essential for the employer to execute its mission and whether the essential functions are tied to those requirements.


A case involving a restaurant in Puerto Rico hinged on whether the employer's asserted requirements were in the words of the court decision, "solidly anchored in the realities of the workplace, not constructed out of whole cloth…."


The third case turned on a job description which had not been updated when the employer reorganized the functions involved. The word to the wise from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals—keep your job descriptions current because we will read them in the event of a dispute.

Señor gerente de riesgos, tiene carga?

Do you ship to/from Mexico? Important stuff, like car parts or electronic components, perhaps? You may not have noticed that the rate of cargo and commercial vehicle theft south of the border has gone up by an eye watering 200% in the last two years. You may not have felt the full brunt of this amazing increase since the major insurers handling this risk have been gritting their teeth and keeping a lid on premiums.

What your colleagues in operations are probably feeling is not premium pressure but one interruption after another as finely tuned production schedules slide into the circular file as critical deliveries vanish en route. What’s up? Well, the Mexican insurer association, AMIS ( Asociacion Mexicana de Instituciones de Seguros) in a report released two weeks ago (subscription required) detailed how the country's most populous state, the state of Mexico, has become a hub for insured vehicle and cargo theft, which has risen 50.5% from July 2012 to June 2018 over the previous six year period. The states of Guerrero and Sinaloa were close behind. A separate report in June reviewed the startling increase—108% so far this year—in thefts of rail-shipped cargo and the growing incidence of sabotage in which thieves derail entire trains.

Although your premiums may not be raising a red flag (yet), the fact of so many incidents of theft and sabotage still presents a major risk management problem with the potential for idle production lines and unmet delivery schedules. Possible mitigation strategies are many and beyond the scope of this article. The task for today is to know exactly what’s happening to your supply chains in Mexico and to identify possible trouble points and soft targets for further action.

El riesgo favorece la mente preparada (risk favors the prepared mind).


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