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Surviving winter's many perils takes care


Winter weather comes in many forms, so it's no surprise that such conditions pose myriad risk management challenges as well.

They range from such common exposures as burst pipes to more costly events such as collapsed snow-laden roofs, say experts. But subfreezing temperatures can also affect the unseen inner workings of air compressors, they say.

There's a human factor at play as well, as weather impacts driving conditions and even such matters as parking lot safety.

"When it comes to a more frequent, less catastrophic type of event—frozen pipes and frozen utilities are very, very common—whether it be gas mains or whether it be water pipes," said Mark Mirek, senior vp and managing director-property risk control services in Glen Allen, Va.-based Hilb Rogal & Hobbs Co.'s Dallas office. "This is a very common hazard that can be easily avoided, by either insulating pipes or burying them enough down in the ground so they are not affected by the freeze."

James Tarver, director-campus facilities for Montgomery College in Rockville, Md., said that as temperatures begin to drop, "we make sure all pipes are completely drained. That starts in the middle of October and by the end of October we've completed that process."

Roof collapses are the No. 1 source of catastrophic loss during the cold season, said HRH's Mr. Mirek. He said risk managers should have a plan, including having people and resources available to take care of the snow on the roof.

"Most of the winter-related losses can be prevented, and it comes at you from two different angles—the snow and the freeze," said Sergio Prete, manager-natural hazard peril underwriting and engineering at Johnston, R.I.-based Factory Mutual Insurance Co., which does business as FM Global.

He said there are two "relatively quick things" that can be done before winter arrives to protect roofs. One is to make sure roof drains are not clogged and are free of any debris. The second is to find areas inside buildings where deterioration has occurred, such as steel rust and wood damage, and to repair those areas.

Snow accumulates on key areas of roofs, notably when one building has a different elevation than an adjoining one. This can lead to drifting along walls, particularly if there is more than six inches of snow, he said.

Mr. Prete noted that many plants shut down for at least some time over the holidays, with heat either shut off entirely or lowered to a minimal level. "If the freeze happens then, the entire facility is vulnerable to freeze damage," he said. Heat must be maintained at a high enough level to prevent freezing, he said.

"Clearly any kind of piping that has any sort of water is susceptible to freeze damage. Any equipment that has been laid up or is not being used and hasn't been properly winterized can also be susceptible to freeze damage," said Roger Royer, senior vp-inspection services at Hartford, Conn.-based Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection & Insurance Co.

Proper insulation on all water lines or steam hot water piping is also critical, said Mr. Royer. A lack of insulation can cause that section of piping to freeze in extreme cold weather.

Large reciprocating air compressors or large water-cooled air compressors present their own challenges, he said. If a unit's jacket isn't drained or free of water, it can freeze and then crack and damage the compressor. If dampers aren't working properly, they allow cold air to enter a building and freeze water coils, and water then freezes and wrecks air-conditioning systems, he said.

Schools often turn their heat down over the holiday season, which can cause pipes to freeze in class rooms.

James Lang, a senior loss consultant with Gallagher Bassett Services Inc. in Itasca, Ill., pointed out that one school suffered about $145,000 in damage because dampers didn't close on a very cold night, which resulted in frozen coils in the heating unit, allowing further damage to occur.

Montgomery College's Mr. Tarver said that even simple measures, such as making sure windows are shut, can help protect fan coil units and prevent pipes from bursting.

Mr. Lang said that more Gallagher Bassett clients are now putting the same type of alarms on regular water lines as they have on sprinkler systems. "If a pipe breaks and you get a continuous flow of water for say five minutes it will trigger an alarm to notify somebody to check it out," he said.

Personal perils

But extreme cold can wreak havoc on people as well as property, said Joe Slifka, executive vp-risk control services for Gallagher Bassett in Itasca. That's particularly true regarding driving.

One of the biggest problems is failure to adjust driving speed to winter road conditions, said Mr. Slifka. "I assume they think it's just the same conditions as a dry pavement—but it's not." Drivers need longer stopping times on slick roads, he said.

Employers need to make sure they have a good preventive maintenance system for vehicles, he said. They should also provide training sessions for employees driving company vehicles, he said.

Drivers also need to be prepared for the winter weather if something happens, including having proper winter emergency supplies and clothing on hand, said Gallagher Bassett's Mr. Lang. "Unfortunately, every year you hear of a few people who freeze to death."

Parking lots also present hazards in cold weather because they can become icy or snow covered, noted Chad Callaghan, vp-enterprise loss prevention for Marriott International Inc. in Bethesda, Md. He said the hotel chain has "gotten really good in considering weather conditions when we design properties." But some issues require more than engineering, he said.

Mr. Callaghan noted that Marriott's hotels cover a wide range in size, but all are required to have some "methodology for knowing when a lot is getting icy or snowy" as well as a method for removing the hazards. Smaller hotels may outsource the process, while larger hotels may have an onsite team to check the lot regularly and keep it clear, he said.