A Day in the Life of a Risk Manager

A city’s risk manager ensures that all municipal employees are properly trained for their safety. They also work to safeguard the public, determining that all the city’s assets are inspected, maintained and insured. Since the beginning of the pandemic, their duties have expanded to make sure every department is following the public health safety protocols.  

The variety of issues in need of a risk manager’s attention can seem daunting, but that just means they must employ time management and, most importantly, triage — doing the urgent things first. 

“There is no telling what’s going to be coming across my desk,” said Joe House, an experienced risk manager who has been with the City of Aiken since 2019. “I have to triage every day. What’s most important moves to the front. It’s not easy. I’m one person, and there’s a tremendous amount going on.”

Since starting with the City of Aiken in 2019, Risk Manager Joe House knows firsthand the importance of time management and organization as he is responsible for the city’s liability insurance on property and people. Photo: City of Aiken.

With more than 300 employees, House is responsible for the city’s liability insurance on property and people. He has to authorize purchases to fix damage to vehicles and buildings, and he makes sure that everyone from firefighters to police officers and office workers are trained. The annual training list includes trenching and shoring for public works employees, first aid and CPR for all employees, and monthly defensive driving classes for anyone who gets behind the wheel of a city car.

The COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the process of risk management. The city employs a full-time nurse who helps treat workplace injuries, but pandemic safety protocols required significant juggling to make sure the nurse’s office was not inundated with people in close proximity. Physical distancing measures and sanitation standards meant many workers had to wait longer to get seen.

“Everybody wanted to be tested, but our nurse was getting flooded,” House said. “We were cleaning after each person, but we had to stop the inflow. We just told everybody to call first and make an appointment.”

The city instituted a mask mandate for all employees unless they were alone in their own office. And as of mid-March 2021, all employees who wanted a COVID-19 vaccination had received them. 

“I can tell you I’m never bored,” House said. “Every time I answer the phone or open an email, something has happened. Nobody calls me to chat.”

In Spartanburg, Carl Wright and Kenneth Booker share responsibilities for risk management while tackling other tasks. Wright also handles procurement and Booker addresses safety and workers compensation. 

The ability to take on many different functions is essential to risk management, Wright said. 

“Your day could start with A and B, and you get a phone call that an accident has taken place and you drop A and B and go pick up C,” he said. “You have to be able to multitask.”

Both Wright and Booker said one of the key risk management improvements that Spartanburg has made is the establishment of policies for the use of city vehicles that help eliminate accidents. An accident review team takes a look at all crashes involving damage, and the city employees involved in those crashes know they will be tested for drug and alcohol use. 

Wright says the biggest piece of the puzzle after finding the cause of the accident is to use that knowledge to inform future training. 

“We have been blessed to have a defensive driving team,” Wright said. “Every month, we review all the accidents and our challenge is to reduce accidents by awareness … You can minimize accidents by finding trends, then broadcasting that trend out to the departments.”

Booker said the policy has led to fewer accidents in part because employees see how seriously the city takes car crashes. 

“We don’t want to see vehicle damage, but we really don’t want to see employees get hurt,” Booker says. “Employees started buying into it and looking out for each other.”

Booker has worked in risk management and safety in both the public and private sectors. He said that one of the biggest changes during his career has been the growth in governments’ efforts to minimize workplace injuries. 

“If you are paying out a lot of money on work-related injuries, that resonates as a bottom line budget item,” he said. “They are taking it seriously now, understanding the cost.”

In addition to his workers comp duties, Booker also is responsible for inspecting all city properties on a quarterly basis and making sure safety hazards are corrected. 

While larger cities like Spartanburg can split the duties of risk management between multiple people, others have a single risk manager who wears many hats. In the case of the City of Conway’s risk manager, that other hat is a firefighter’s helmet. Jeremy Carter is the fire marshal and an assistant fire chief, in addition to his risk management duties. 

“I actually have three jobs,” Carter said. “You start out the day with a sticky note, but the first thing you write down might be the last thing you do.”

Carter’s primary risk management duties focus on making sure the city meets federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. 

“You just want to make sure that your employees and your residents are safe,” he said.

To that end in 2015, the city began a new-hire orientation program that reviews a checklist of workplace safety issues with all new employees. If employees are going to be driving a city vehicle, they get defensive driver training on their second day at work. 

“It’s all just prevention,” Carter said. “When we started making sure that new employees were getting this training upfront before they are ever released to their departments, they’ve got all this awareness training they need.”

Carter said it has led to fewer accidents that are the fault of city employees.

For recorded accidents, a review board meets periodically with all employees involved to see if there is something that needs to be changed in the training. If an employee logs a full year without an at-fault incident, they get a $100 bonus at the end of the year.

When the pandemic began, the city implemented mandatory mask-wearing and physical distancing to keep employees healthy. By March of this year, all the city’s first responders have been vaccinated and Carter is hoping for a return to more normal operations, which includes a city-owned fitness center that employees can use for free.

“That allows the employees to take care of themselves, which in turn helps out on the job,” he said.

Another risk management duty is inspecting city buildings for safety hazards. As fire marshal, Carter is already inspecting most buildings in town anyway, so he just adds the city-owned buildings to his routine inspections. 

“It can be tough having the risk management role,” Carter said. “Truly with a city of our size, it could be a standalone full-time position, but we feel we’ve got a really good system.”

Risk managers face the challenge of numerous potential hazards and opportunities for improvement, but their work ties them directly into one of the foremost goals of any city: the safety of its residents and protection of its employees.