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Katharine Peeling is Risk Management Specialist with the Office of Insurance Management for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS) in Maryland. In this interview, Peeling explains how the Office of Insurance Management operates and discusses the safety and health risks public school system employees can face.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of your position as Risk Management Specialist with the Office of Insurance Management for AACPS.

AACPS, the fifth largest school district in Maryland, has a student population of approximately 74,000 students, 10,000 employees and 120 locations. As Risk Management Specialist, I am responsible for the administration of the risk management program that includes the self-insurance of workers’ compensation, vehicle liability and general liability, including employment and professional liability coverage. I review contracts for insurance requirements and indemnification language. I oversee the property insurance program for all of our locations and am involved in documenting losses for claims processing. I also oversee a database where we capture accident data primarily for claim processing but use it to analyze accident trends for the purpose of reducing losses, preventing accidents and pinpointing training needs. My office coordinates the completion and posting of OSHA 300 reports each year. My office includes a safety specialist who is responsible for worksite inspections and aides claim adjusters with accident investigation.

Prior to AACPS, I served as Deputy Director of the Local Government Insurance Trust in Maryland, an insurance pool comprised of most of the smaller local governmental entities in the state. While there, I oversaw the claims, underwriting, loss control and environmental liability departments. Prior to that, I served as the first Risk Manager for Carroll County Government in Westminster, Maryland, constructing their program from the pieces scattered throughout the organization. I have more than 25 years of insurance industry experience and began my career by adjusting claims in both the public and private sectors.

The Office of Insurance Management supports the county school system’s instructional and business programs by implementing strategies to minimize employee safety and health risks. What are the greatest safety and health risks that school system employees face? Do these risks tend to change with each school year?

The risks that our employees face are not unique because we are a school system. Falls and material handling are our most frequent causes of accidents, as they are in private industry. We have many positions that are physically demanding such as our custodial, maintenance and food services staff positions. They comprise our largest group of injured employees and the most costly accidents.

While our instructional personnel also suffer from falls and material handling accidents, their injuries arise out of their interaction with students, particularly in our schools for students with special needs.

We have more instructional personnel than any other category, but they are not the cost drivers of our workers’ compensation program. However, training to help prevent injuries for this group is the most difficult to provide since they have extensive continuing education requirements that they consider a much higher priority.

The risks have not changed much in the years I have worked here.

To identify the factors that contribute to accidents, injuries and property and liability losses, the Office of Insurance Management adheres to recognized national safety standards and requirements. Which standards does the Office of Insurance Management follow?

Maryland is a state-run OSHA state. We follow regulations from Maryland OSHA and strive to meet or exceed them. In addition, we have internal policies and procedures that we follow. I belong to a group of school system risk professionals who meet on a monthly basis. We discuss ways to reduce our losses and share best practices. While these are not standards, we take these suggestions to enhance the programs we have in place.

The Office of Insurance Management also identifies risk factors through training programs and investigation and inspection procedures. What do the training programs entail, and how does the Office ensure that its investigation and inspection procedures are up-to-date?

We do our best to ensure that our training programs are up-to-date. During the last year, we have scheduled training for lifting, CPR, lockout/tagout and respiratory protection. We work closely with our industrial hygienist, who is housed in a different department, on the training that he schedules. He oversees the chemical inventory and indoor air quality programs. Both the safety specialist in my office and the industrial hygienist perform school inspections. Our safety staff is lean but very talented.

We are in the process of trying to automate our inspection program by using the Healthy School Environments Assessment Tool (HealthySEATv2) that EPA offers to schools. HealthySEATv2 is a fully customizable and easy-to-use software program designed to help school districts evaluate and manage all of their SH&E issues. This should help us document our inspections better and follow up to ensure that recommended corrections are made.

When did Anne Arundel County Public Schools institute the Office of Insurance Management? How have injury and accident rates changed under the Office of Insurance Management?

AACPS created the Office of Insurance Management most likely around the time they decided to self-insure workers’ compensation, which occurred in 1979. At first, it was just for the administration and processing of claims. As time went on, responsibility for safety shifted to this office.

Our accident and injury rates have fluctuated over the years but have remained fairly constant in raw accident numbers in relation to the number of employees. Better training of supervisors caused better accident reporting, which caused an increase in the raw numbers but not in the severity of the reported accidents. After some intensive training cycles, we see accident rates dip, but over time, they creep back up.

What has changed is the amount of lost time from work due to the accidents. We have greatly reduced the amount of days lost from work due to an aggressive return-to-work program. We work hard to return workers to their jobs while accommodating their temporary medical restrictions.

As a Risk Management Specialist for a county public school system, what challenges do you face and how do they differ from those that others working in the public sector must address?

I am not sure that my challenges regarding occupational safety and health issues differ that greatly from other public sector entities. What differs, however, are the risks that we must address every day because we are responsible for so many minor-aged school children. They are in our care, custody and control for many hours each day, and they find many unique and creative ways to cause hazards and to get hurt.  Kids are kids, and they do not have the experience or insight to recognize hazards. They are full of energy and emotion and can move very quickly, sometimes before a teacher has a chance to react.

Dedicated teachers are also creative in their attempts to keep children engaged in learning. They often do not think through all of the possible consequences and dangers of some of their activities. We must constantly conduct risk analysis of the activities so that both students and staff are protected from harm.

In what ways does the Office of Insurance Management work with the Anne Arundel County Risk Management, Human Resources and Accounting offices?

My office works closely with the County’s Office of Risk Management because we are in a combined self-insurance program. The County actually serves as the claims administrator for the school system. We monitor the medical management of AACPS cases. Through their database, we obtain our loss information to analyze for accident trends. We also piggyback on some of their OSHA training programs. Our safety professionals work with the county’s safety professionals to address common problems.

My office also works in close consultation with our human resources department to coordinate the benefits when workers are hurt on the job. In addition, we work with human resources to identify transitional duty assignments for returning injured employees to work. We meet every two weeks to discuss cases of employees missing time from work. We review medical restrictions and the worker’s background and try to find assignments that match the worker with the job.

As far as the accounting office, we have continuous interaction regarding the payment of workers’ compensation benefits since the dollars flow electronically between the County and AACPS. My office is responsible for ensuring that the payments are handled correctly with our payroll office. My office also consults with the budget office to identify upcoming new programs in an attempt to get ahead of the curve should the programs present new risks.

How can a public school system take full advantage of the insurance function to reduce risks and losses?

By accessing the database of claims, we are able to study accident trends in terms of their frequency and severity to direct safety training efforts. We are also able to provide reports to senior-level management to show the results of our training as well as areas that need funding. By reporting on accident trends, we are better able to obtain support and funding for our efforts. In addition to responding reactively to accident trends, we work with departments proactively to analyze new programs to prevent losses. We work closely with our purchasing department to effectively transfer risk when contracting for goods and services. We serve as an internal consulting agency to protect the Board of Education’s assets.

Based on your experience, what areas within a public school system do you believe can most benefit from the services of an Office of Insurance Management or similar department?

It is difficult to identify which areas may benefit the most; however, departments that cause the highest number of losses receive the most attention. Areas in a public school system that present the most employee injury losses are the ones that have the most labor-intensive jobs.

Our Operations Division provides custodial services and has some of the heaviest labor jobs, including cleaning the schools and moving furniture. Closely linked with those services are the ones provided by our Maintenance Division, which perform grounds maintenance services along with preventative maintenance of our physical plants. Both departments have the highest injury ratios per number of employees. Because of these factors, these two divisions receive much of our attention.

Our Food Services Division generates claims due to material handling responsibilities. To produce meals for our student population, they handle enormous amounts of food supplies on a daily basis, which can cause lifting injuries. Kitchens can also be dangerous in terms of slips, lacerations and burns.

What are the Office of Insurance Management’s plans and goals for the remainder of the year?

Our goals are set on a fiscal year basis (July 1-June 30), so we are about halfway through our current fiscal year. We are working to design an annual report, which will reflect the cost of risks addressed by our office to give senior management a snapshot of the measurable efforts put in place. While an accident prevented may be difficult to prove or quantify, it is possible to show trends and to give our schools an idea of their part in the total loss picture. We have accomplished much of the budgeted training and are preparing for new training regarding workers’ compensation accident reporting once our new human resources systems comes online.

Katharine Peeling

Katharine Peeling, CPCU, ARM-P is Risk Management Specialist for Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), the fifth largest school district in Maryland. Peeling is responsible for the administration of the risk management program that includes the self-insurance of workers’ compensation, vehicle liability and general liability, including employment and professional liability coverage. She is credited with automating the accident reporting system to allow for online accident reporting from all schools. 

Prior to AACPS, Peeling served as Deputy Director of the Local Government Insurance Trust in Maryland, an insurance pool comprised of most of the smaller local governmental entities in the state, and as the Risk Manager for Carroll County Commissioners in Westminster, Maryland after adjusting claims for many years in both the public and private sectors.  

She was President of the Alexandria, VA-based Public Risk Management Association’s (PRIMA) board of directors from 2006-2007 and served on the board of directors from 2001 until 2008. She has been active in the Maryland Chapter of PRIMA since 1989 and currently serves as president. 

Peeling holds a bachelor of arts degree in business administration with a concentration in marketing from Towson University.