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When a 10-year-old autistic boy recently climbed to the top of a 125-foot-tall electric line tower in Phoenix, his 17-year-old brother quickly followed in hopes of retrieving the younger boy.
Instead, both became stranded on the tower, which supports lines carrying 230,000 volts of electricity.
Once on the scene, it took firefighters with climbing ropes and a special truck more than two hours to scale the tower and rescue both boys safely and uninjured. The two boys sat atop a three-inch-wide beam waiting for help while news helicopters circled overhead and broadcast the tense event nationwide.
The crisis pulled William R. Powell from his normal duties as manager of the risk management department for Salt River Project, which, as Phoenix's public electric and water utility, owns the steel, lattice-like tower the boys climbed.
While SRP's operations personnel rerouted the high-voltage electricity in the power lines to eliminate the risk of electrocution, Mr. Powell stepped in to help the company's besieged media-relations department. He also kept SRP's upper management apprised of the unfolding situation.
"He recognized his role," said David G. Areghini, associate general manager of SRP's power, construction and engineering services unit.
Mr. Powell said, " 'Hey, what can I do to help?' calling the dispatcher, calling our field sources, making sure we touched base with our communications people because it was a big media event. He made sure we notified state authorities," Mr. Areghini said.
He also met with company engineers and managers to evaluate how the crisis could have happened and what needed to be done to prevent it from happening again.
As part of that assessment, Mr. Powell investigated whether there had been similar events on SRP's vast transmission and distribution line system in the past. The study did not find other incidents with a similar potential for such a severity of loss.
"At least if no other problems exist, we will have a good record on file that we have done our due diligence," he said.
"We are surveying the industry just to reassure ourselves that our tower design is to industry standards. We are finding out that is the case. In fact, ours is above industry standards," he said.
The tower the boys climbed has since undergone additional modifications to restrict public access, and SRP's crews are surveying all its lattice-like towers near urban areas to ensure they have appropriate warning signs and that steps are no lower than eight feet.
Public and employee contact with SRP's electrical equipment and waterways are among SRP's biggest safety and liability concerns, said Richard M. Hayslip, SRP's manager of environmental, land and risk management and Mr. Powell's immediate supervisor.
"Almost anywhere in Phoenix, you can see an artifact of our existence: a power line, a canal, an irrigation ditch," Mr. Hayslip explained.
"Having that much physical infrastructure out in the community that people can run into with cars, they can jump off of, or they can climb on gives you some unique exposures. It's not just benign things that are out there."
In addition to third-party liability exposures, SRP's employees also face exposures inherent in the utility industry, from operating utility vehicles and equipment to working in close quarters with high-voltage power lines.
"We have literally hundreds of people in dangerous situations every day," said Richard H. Silverman, general manager of SRP.
Mr. Powell's management of those exposures, amid ongoing change as SRP and the utility industry prepare for deregulation, earned him a place on the 1997 Business Insurance Risk Management Honor Roll, representing government entities.
SRP provides electricity to 640,000 customers in the Phoenix area, while its water reservoirs feed central Arizona through a 131-mile canal system.
SRP operates or shares in the operation of seven major electric power plants along with several smaller ones in Arizona. SRP's plants are fueled by coal, nuclear and hydroelectric sources.
High-cost electricity-generating machinery alone represents a major portion of SRP's more than $4 billion in insured values.
Mr. Powell emphasizes central control over risk management and the purchase of insurance coverage to better manage the utility's risks and costs (see story, page 129).
Integrating risk management and safety into other departments so that line managers think to consult him before they take on new risks is a constant effort, Mr. Powell said.
"If it becomes just a little dim light in the back of their head that 'This is something I might want to call Bill about,' or 'This is something risk management might want to be involved in,' that is the door that opens a little crack allowing us to get involved," he said.
Mr. Powell oversees 37 employees working in six units that he has restructured or influenced significantly since 1991, when he was promoted to manager of the risk management department.
Those six units are: environmental health and safety audits; insurance services; safety services; security services; technical services; and workers compensation services.
"The scope of his responsibility is much broader than you see most risk managers involved with," said Michael J. Marsolek, senior vp for Aon Risk Services Inc. of Southern California in Los Angeles, SRP's primary broker.
"He really changed a lot of things here, and this was not a broken system when he took over," Mr. Marsolek added. "The Salt River Project has historically been well-managed. It is one of the leaders in the utility industry, and it's looked up to by most of its peer competitors."
Indeed, SRP's safety efforts have won honors from the American Public Power Assn. and the national Safety Council (see story, page 132).
All of the utility's parts, including risk management, work closely in sync, Mr. Marsolek added.
That coordination has enabled Mr. Powell to broaden risk management's role within the utility, which in turn has contributed to a reduction in its total cost of risk to $6.2 million in 1996 from $8.7 million in 1991 (see story, page 131).
Cost control will prove even more critical as SRP navigates impending deregulation in the utility industry, which will mean new competition for an industry that until now has enjoyed a monopoly for its services.
To meet those challenges, SRP's risk management department has been adopting more cost-effective risk financing strategies, including increased self-insured retentions and use of a rent-a-captive.
The department also continues to fine-tune its understanding of the components of SRP's cost of risk and to implement new safety measures to hold down workers compensation costs, one major source of its loss costs.
For example, under the risk management department's guidance, SRP recently held a 30-minute safety stand-down in which workers and their supervisors halted work companywide, discussed the subject and made recommendations for improvements.
Among the topics discussed were driver safety and ergonomics.
To its credit, the department enjoys unequivocal support from SRP's upper management, which is focused on surviving the process of deregulation by keeping overhead and losses to a minimum while exploring new revenue opportunities.
The support for risk management comes in large part from the SRP general manager's dedication to safety and loss prevention.
"The success of our risk management/loss control package is attributable in large measure to the support Dick Silverman provides," said Mr. Hayslip. "He sees the importance of what Bill does in risk management and is very supportive to the symbolic extent of spending a lot of time in the field with Bill or Bill's safety people. It sends a subtle message that risk management is important."
Mr. Silverman joins risk management department employees several times a month on routine tours of company facilities and visits with field crews, he said.
That kind of support "is not typical for people in my job," Mr. Powell said.