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Risk management careers anything but routine, students learn

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PHILADELPHIA — Lesson No. 1: There is no typical day in the life of a risk manager.

Students from schools including Appalachian State University, Mississippi State University and the University of North Carolina-Charlotte heard that message from the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority’s risk management and workers compensation team on Saturday.

These students are entering the field at just the right time, with the “best and the brightest” of the industry heading for retirement in the next five years and the profession gaining prominence within organizations, said Rick Graham, director of workers compensation for the Philadelphia-based regional transportation system.

However, a risk manager often doesn’t know what challenges a day will bring, he said. Case in point: Right before last year’s Fourth of July holiday, the agency removed 120 relatively new Silverliner V passenger cars from service after an employee noticed that the cars were leaning, leading to the discovery of major cracks on a stabilizer beam.

SEPTA negotiated an agreement with Amtrak to rent equipment to try to provide normal service after the holiday weekend, but the federal transportation agency required certificate of insurances — which SEPTA did not have because it was self-insured for railroad liability since it has state sovereign immunity protection, barring liability for some incidents and capping losses for others, he said.

That forced the agency to seek $290 million in limits from the London and Bermuda markets.

“This is a day in the life of a risk manager,” he said. “Risk is risk. The challenge is learning your operations and then learning how the operations and finance communicate internally. If you can pick up on that speak and start to mimic it, it helps a lot. No matter what you’re doing, you have to get out from behind your desk and understand the operations of your organization.”

SEPTA also monitors and learns lessons from the challenges encountered by other transportation systems, Mr. Graham said.

In May 2015, an Amtrak Northeast regional train leaving Philadelphia’s 30th street station derailed, killing eight people and injuring more than 200 — an accident experts say could have been prevented had Amtrak fully installed positive train control technology that would have slowed the train, which was operating above 100 miles per hour at a curve marked with a 50-mph speed limit.

SEPTA had a safety event the following day to discuss the derailment and will fully implement positive train control in its own system by the end of the year.

The transportation system also has a transitional light-duty program that enables injured workers to return to work almost immediately, as well as a program that reserves alternate jobs for employees who cannot return to their previous positions.

“We don’t believe in kicking people to the curb just because they had an injury at work,” Mr. Graham said.

But the organization’s risk management and workers comp programs continually evolve, with SEPTA exploring using funds from a catastrophic loss fund it established in the 1980s to form a captive insurer to cover large self-insured retentions, including stop-loss coverage for its health insurance program. A captive could also be used to cover SEPTA’s cyber risk, including trains  operating on signal systems vulnerable to manipulation and a new payment card system.

“We’re nervous about the cyber policy,” he said. “Is it really going to respond to what we think we bought? If you have a captive and you structure it the right way, you can use it to respond to a loss.”

Students said they came away with valuable information about the profession and critical insurance topics. Arshi Bassi, a risk management student at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Surrey, British Columbia, was particularly impressed with SEPTA’s safety culture.

“They are a true role model,” she said.