7 Dangerous Natural Catastrophe Risks
Environmental Time Bomb
The cost of failing to safeguard a vacant building against environmental risks such as mold and Legionella can run into multimillions of dollars.
And with tens of thousands of vacant and abandoned office buildings, hotels and other properties across the United States, according to federal government estimates, experts believe a growing list of serious health hazards is a time bomb just waiting to explode.
But that’s only the tip of the iceberg. The biggest emerging threat on the horizon is the sudden proliferation of crystal methamphetamine production laboratories in empty urban buildings, fueled by an industry believed to be worth almost $30 billion globally.
“Environmental risk has traditionally been viewed as an area with low frequency/high severity impact; however, due to more stringent environmental regulations and our increasingly litigious society, frequency of claims are on the rise.”– John Wasilchuk, account executive for commercial insurance, Lockton
Environmental risk, as a whole, is big business in the United States, with a market of more than 40 insurers estimated to be worth $1 billion to $3 billion, which is set to grow exponentially over the next decade as a result of a surge in demand.
Vacant Building Problems
The difficulty mainly stems from a sharp rise in buildings that have become vacant as a result of tenants being unable to pay their leases, or hotels partially shutting down during the off-season to save on running costs.
Veronica Benzinger, chief broking officer at Aon Risk Solutions Environmental Services Group, said the problem is exacerbated by increased vandalism, fire, and theft, as well as squatters and the general dilapidation of the building resulting from a lack of care and attention.
“A lack of basic supervision, security and maintenance can contribute to the building quickly falling into disrepair and becoming uninhabitable,” she said.
Mold: The “No. 1” issue
Despite all of those issues, the No. 1 problem with vacant buildings remains mold, according to Richard Sheldon, environmental practice leader at Willis North America.
Once it finds the right conditions, he said, mold rapidly multiplies and spreads within 72 hours.
“The scale of the problem can be anywhere from a simple and relatively inexpensive remediation process to full scale clean-ups running into the tens of millions of dollars, when you factor in business interruption,” Sheldon said.
Benzinger said the worst form of growth is Stachybotrys Chartarum, known as black or toxic mold. It produces toxic compounds called myotoxins, which when released into the air are harmful when they come into contact with humans.
Although mold can affect all buildings, she said, it’s often worse in more modern properties where the air flow is restricted, creating greater potential for them to become breeding grounds for mold.
“The biggest problem is water intrusion,” she said. “Once that happens, mold can grow and proliferate throughout the building.
“Mold can affect any building, but it’s often worse in new buildings. All it needs to grow is the right temperature, moisture and food.”
Susan Doering, vice president and director of Tokio Marine Specialty Environmental, said: “The bottom line is that vacant buildings are prime real estate for mold growth — which can lead to loss of property value, potential harm to new inhabitants, and costs incurred to mitigate the problem.
Construction projects that are restarted after a period of dormancy can also face issues related to damaged building materials that were exposed to the elements while the project was abandoned.
“The most common issue faced in this scenario is damp building materials that will be enclosed in the building envelope, creating an environment that is perfect for mold growth,” Doering said.
Spread of Legionella
Letting a building fall into disrepair carries with it a multitude of health risks, including the Legionella bacteria, which causes Legionnaire’s disease. The bacteria can quickly develop and spread through the building’s heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems (HVAC) if they are poorly maintained, Benzinger said.
This is prevalent in hotels that close down some of their units in the winter months, she said.
“It’s particularly common in artificial water systems, fire sprinkler systems, and hot and cold water systems because the bacteria can survive at relatively low temperatures,” Benzinger said.
“So unless the system is properly maintained, when the next person moves in and they turn on the taps again, they can get a nasty shock.”
Or worse. If the bacteria makes contact with humans, it can become a potentially fatal form of pneumonia.
Sheldon of Willis said that, as a result of the potential threat it carries, Legionella has become one of the key areas of cover in environmental liability insurance in recent years.
“The issue has been around for quite some time now, but it hasn’t necessarily been covered in standard policies previously and has only really come to light recently, which goes to show that the level of concern about it has heightened,” he said.
“We have seen some big losses in the U.S. in the last couple of years, particularly in the hotel and hospitality trade, due to the spread of Legionella, which have resulted in payments of $10 million and upwards.”
Sheldon said the costs aren’t limited to the clean-up operation either.
He’s also seen some substantial bodily injury claims due to exposure to Legionella, which have resulted in large settlements being paid.
“Our estimates are that some of these losses are in the multimillion range,” he said.
Crystal Meth Production
Another fast growing problem, said Benzinger, is the proliferation of methamphetamine laboratories, where the drug can be quickly and cheaply manufactured using toxic substances such as drain cleaner and paint thinner.
Video: The illegal production of meth contaminates properties with hazardous chemicals and creates a strong risk of fire or explosion.
“These hazardous toxins can quickly spread to and contaminate the adjoining properties, putting the health of residents at risk as the fumes permeate into shared amenities such as air conditioning systems and are inhaled,” she said.
“Ultimately, it can kill your brain cells and also damage your lungs and other vital organs.”
Sheldon said the clean-up costs of the residual toxins produced by methamphetamine labs can be “catastrophic,” depending on the quantity and type of materials used in its production.
“It has to be handled very carefully and generally involves a full blown hazardous waste disposal team to handle the materials involved properly and safely,” he said.
On the whole, these types of environmental risks — and the litigation defense costs associated with them — are excluded from most general liability or property insurance policies, leaving property owners to defend themselves against lawsuits arising from the threat of contamination.
But, Sheldon said, there are tailored policies available that allow building owners to manage these risks while protecting their main assets.
“There are insurance policies available that extend beyond the traditional general liability cover and will provide you with a high level of cover for mold and Legionella clean-up, as well as the remediation of methamphetamine labs and their contents,” he said.
A number of industry organizations have launched new practices in recent years to provide cover for vacant and distressed properties, in response to this growing list of environmental problems.
With many abandoned buildings in inner cities being demolished and removed, contractors’ pollution liability insurance policies are also being put in place to protect workers against pollution claims brought against them, with cover limits starting from $500,000 and rising to more than $50 million.
Site pollution or pollution legal liability has also become more readily available, providing property owners with protection against third- and first-party claims — including defense costs — resulting from pollution conditions.
Variations of this policy include secured creditor environmental insurance and lender liability, which cover financial institutions and borrowers throughout the buying and selling process.
Risk Strategies Needed
Tokio Marine’s Doering said good property management is key to avoiding the build-up of mold and Legionella in the first place. HVAC systems need to be kept at a moderate temperature, and regular surveys to check for leaks, musty odors or mold growth should be carried out.
She added that water systems should also be flushed regularly and drained when not in use to reduce the likelihood of Legionella spreading.
John Wasilchuk, account executive for commercial insurance at Lockton, said having a sound environmental risk management strategy is paramount, particularly in the hospitality industry, where a clearly defined water management plan and a comprehensive pollution prevention plan are essential.
“Environmental risk has traditionally been viewed as an area with low frequency/high severity impact; however, due to more stringent environmental regulations and our increasingly litigious society, frequency of claims are on the rise,” he said.
Therefore it’s fundamental for businesses to have an effective strategy in place to mitigate against those risks and to make sure they are covered should the worst happen.
Construction’s New World
Get off a plane at Logan Airport and cross the harbor toward Boston and you will see construction cranes, a lot of them.
Grab an Amtrak train from Philadelphia into New York and pulling into Penn Station, you will see more construction cranes, many more of them. The same scene repeats in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago.
All that steel and cable in the skyline signifies a construction industry that is growing again, after having the rug pulled out from under it in the Great Recession of 2008-2010.
The cranes these days look the same as cranes looked in 2008, but the risk management and insurance environment in construction is anything but the same now.
A variety of factors are now in play that have drastically changed construction risk underwriting, according to Doug Cauti, a senior vice president and chief underwriting officer with Boston-based Liberty Mutual’s construction practice.
Doug Cauti characterizes the current construction market.
Talent and Margins
For one thing, according to Cauti, the available talent pool in construction is nowhere near what it was pre-recession.
“When the economy went into its downturn, a lot of talent left the business and hasn’t returned,” Cauti said.
Cauti said recent conversations with large contractors in Ohio and Pennsylvania confirmed once again that contractors are facing a workforce that is either aging or very inexperienced. That leads to safety management and project quality concerns at just the moment in time that construction is rebounding.
Doug identifies one of the top risk management issues facing construction firms today.
Workers compensation risks in construction, already a problematic area, are seeing an impact from that dynamic.
Contractors are also facing much more competition. In the past, contractors might have bid on 10 jobs to get one, now they have to bid on 50 or 60 jobs to get one. That’s putting pressure on margins.
“There are a lot of contractors out there competing for business,” Cauti said.
“Margins are going up but not at the same rate as the industry’s recovery,” he added.
Financing and Risk Transfer
Another factor impacting the way construction risk is being underwritten is the size of projects and the way they are being financed. Construction’s recovery from the recession might be slow and steady, but the size of projects requiring risk management and insurance has increased substantially.
In 2010, there were 85 projects under contract nationally that were worth $1 billion or more, according to Cauti. One year later, the percentage of projects of that value or higher had grown by 30 percent, and the trend continues.
A lot of those projects are design-build, a relatively new approach to construction that Liberty Mutual has grown comfortable underwriting over the years. But design-build is still an additional complication, blurring the traditional lines of responsibility.
“We did it when the growth in contractor-controlled insurance programs happened, we did it with the evolution in design-build and we’re laying the groundwork to be a thought leader in public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery.”
– Doug Cauti, Chief Underwriting Officer, Liberty Mutual National Insurance Specialty Construction
Given the funding demands of these much larger and more valuable projects — many of them badly needed public sector infrastructure improvements — public-private partnerships, otherwise known as P3s, are now coming into vogue as a financing option.
But deciding how risk should be allocated, underwritten and transferred in this new arrangement between contractors, the state, and private partners is a relatively new and untested science.
As a thought leader in the underwriting of the design-build approach – and the more traditional design-bid-build – Cauti said construction experts within Liberty Mutual are growing their knowledge to stay in step.
“We did it when the growth in contractor-controlled insurance programs happened, we did it with the evolution in design-build and we’re laying the groundwork to be a thought leader in public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery,” he said.
That means attending relevant industry conferences like the annual IRMI Construction Risk Conference where Liberty Mutual has maintained a significant presence, and engaging in dialogues with contractors and government officials, and maintaining clear and active lines of communications with brokers.
Doug discusses emerging approaches to construction.
Legal and Regulatory
Another change that is creating challenges for construction risk underwriting, according to Cauti, stems from what’s happening in United States courtrooms.
Across the country, how a court interprets coverage can vary widely, especially in the area of construction defect.
“In the past, many jurisdictions viewed construction defect simply as shoddy workmanship and they had to go back and redo it,” Cauti said.
But now, on a state by state basis, courts are ruling that a construction defect is an accident under certain circumstances that may be covered by a contractor’s general liability policy.
In 2014 alone, according to Cauti, Supreme Courts in West Virginia, Connecticut and North Dakota ruled that construction defects can sometimes be considered accidents.
Cauti said doing business with a carrier that pursues contract clarity whenever possible – and that possesses an experienced claims team that can navigate the wide variety of state interpretations – is absolutely essential to the buyer.
Having claim teams not only dedicated to construction but also to construction defect, adds a lot of value to a carrier’s offering.
Doug outlines another top risk management issue facing construction firms in today’s booming market.
Now, as never before, contractors are relying on experienced construction insurance teams to help them address these complexities.
Insurers need to have the engineering expertise to analyze a project, to make sure the right contracting team is in place and to insure that risk exposures are being properly assessed. Another key in a construction insurance team, according to Cauti, is the claims department.
A Strategic Approach
The legal and financing changes that are taking place in the construction market, from a risk transfer standpoint, aren’t going to get ironed out overnight.
Cauti said it could be 10 years until the construction and insurance industries fully understand the complications of public-private partnerships and integrated project delivery, these approaches gain traction, and the state-by-state legal decisions that are causing so much uncertainty can be digested.
In the meantime, an engaged, collaborative approach between carriers, brokers, contractors, and their financing partners will be necessary.
Doug discusses how his area can provide value to project owners and contractors.
For more information on how Liberty Mutual Insurance can help assess your construction risk exposure, contact your broker or Doug Cauti at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was produced by the R&I Brand Studio, a unit of the advertising department of Risk & Insurance, in collaboration with Liberty Mutual Insurance. The editorial staff of Risk & Insurance had no role in its preparation.