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Increasing employment liability and federal regulation are two of the most pressing issues facing public entity risk managers, according to the new president of the Public Risk Management Assn.
Public entity risk managers also can expect a myriad of new challenges and opportunities associated with increasing technology in the workplace, said Carol Zoellner, director of risk management for Florida's Palm Beach County and PRIMA's incoming president.
PRIMA hopes to help members face these issues with some new educational tools, such as CD-ROMs, the Internet and video conferencing, according to Ms. Zoellner.
"Employment practices liability certainly is a big item at this point for public entity risk managers," Ms. Zoellner stated. "We're seeing more employment-related lawsuits," many of which allege various kinds of discrimination. And, new employment-related risks constantly are surfacing, such as an entity's liability associated with employment references, Ms. Zoellner added.
For example, the California Su-preme Court ruled earlier this year that a school district could be held liable for providing "misleading" information in a positive recommendation for a former educator who had faced allegations of sexual misconduct. The educator molested a student at his new school (BI, Feb. 3).
Public entity risk managers also "have concerns about increasing regulation about occupational health," Ms. Zoellner said. "There are a lot of issues that risk managers-particularly those in public buildings-have to keep up with," such as workplace air quality and lead exposure. And the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration continues to consider and issue new regulations affecting public entities, she added.
Also on the horizon for public entity risk managers are "both challenges and opportunities" associated with technology, Ms. Zoellner said.
"More than anything else, technology is an opportunity to extract information and get information from others much more quickly," she stated.
However, "There will be some new exposures with regard to privacy issues," particularly as people use the Internet more and more.
She also mentioned that "there is some concern about what the pressure of the soft insurance market is going to do to pools."
The very existence of some public entity pools is threatened because of low pricing by the insurance industry, Ms. Zoellner said. Although soft commercial insurance prices are attractive, pools can provide loss control services, stability, broader coverage and "control over one's destiny" that insurance companies do not, she said (see story, page 7).
Ms. Zoellner has ample experience on these and other public entity risk management challenges. She has been the director of risk management for Palm Beach County for four years. Palm Beach County has about 1 million residents and includes the cities of West Palm Beach, Palm Beach and Boca Raton. The county's total budget, excluding the school board, is $1.1 billion.
Ms. Zoellner oversees a staff of 28 people, including a doctor and nurses who work in an occupational health clinic and the counselors for an internal employee assistance program.
Her staff also provides safety and loss control training and administers all property and casualty insurance programs, a self-insured workers compensation program for 8,000 workers and all employee benefits.
"I like coming to work every day," Ms. Zoellner commented. "Every day's a challenge, and that's very good."
While Palm Beach county has not faced any unusual risks recently, the county has been undertaking "a renewed effort to do employee evacuation training," she noted. The evacuation training, which the county started before the Oklahoma City bombing, "is a very time-consuming, very big job."
However, shortly after she began her current job, there was a fire drill that no one took seriously. Ms. Zoellner said she thought employees needed training and education to change their attitude and prepare them in case of an emergency.
The effort has paid off. During a recent bomb threat, the building was evacuated quickly and smoothly. "You could see evidence of the training and the practice."
Ms. Zoellner served for almost eight years as risk manager for the city of Sunrise, Fla., before joining Palm Beach County.
Prior to her work in risk management, she held management jobs in the insurance industry for many years, first at Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Iowa and then at broker Kirke-Van Orsdel Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa. She also taught elementary school.