Natural catastrophes need more sophisticated risk engineering programmes

By Janice Roberts
Editor

James Ison, Head of Property, Energy and Construction at Chubb Insurance South Africa.

South Africa has experienced a spate of natural catastrophes in recent years. These have ranged from tornados, flash floods, freak hailstorms, droughts and fires, with the last five years in particular racking up billions of rand in damages and insurance claims. As a result risk managers and insurers are under increasing pressure to scrutinise and revise risk management programmes in line with the new normal of South Africa’s unpredictable weather patterns.

Drought conditions heighten fire risks

According to James Ison, Head of Property, Energy and Construction at Chubb Insurance South Africa, severe drought conditions in the Western Cape have increased the risk of catastrophic fire losses in the region.

“With water and pressure at critically low levels, local municipal water supply to fire protection systems and hydrants are negatively impacted and these systems may prove unreliable for fire-fighting purposes. This has implications for insurance programmes since compliance with building and fire protection codes, local by-laws and properly functional municipal services are implied conditions of the insurance policy. Given the circumstances, it’s essential that risk managers assess their fire risk engineering programmes and take action to remedy any gaps that have emerged in terms of fire-protection capacity,” Ison says.

Fire is an underrated risk despite its potentially catastrophic financial and liability consequences. The Rossburgh fire in March 2017 may very well hold the record for the largest, single property loss in South Africa.  A Transnet warehouse went up in flames in a commercial business park just outside of Durban, taking 400 fireman and four days to extinguish the flames.

“Current estimates place the property loss in excess of R1 billion alone, while the environmental liability and clean-up operations, business interruption and damages to third party property claims could see that figure raised significantly.

“Just three months later, wildfires and storms in the Western Cape and Knysna added a further R3bn to underwriting losses.  There are multiple links to fire losses that go well beyond physical damage such as public liability, environmental damages, site rehabilitation, damage to third party property, legal liability, business interruption and reputational damage,” Ison says.

What can insurers and risk managers do to mitigate fire risks?

Mitigating fire risks requires close collaboration between insurers, risk managers and brokers to reassess whether current risk management programmes are still fit for industry purposes and circumstances. This is essential as failure to comply with the statutory requirements and codes of practice for fire protection can leave businesses in severe financial crisis and with potential legal ramifications. Ultimately, ownership of fire risk engineering programmes rests with the risk manager, however these should be developed in close consultation with insurers, brokers and technical specialists

According to Charles Moriarty, Risk Engineer at Chubb Insurance South Africa, risk managers also face the domino effect of the external challenges posed by a lack of infrastructure maintenance and failing municipal systems such as storm water drainage, reduced water pressure and municipal water supply to fire protection systems, and need to consider how this may impact their ability to comply with their insurance provisions.

Factors that could impact on risk programmes are both internal and external and need due consideration. For example, if the water crisis in the Western Cape is not resolved, it may necessitate the installation of onsite fire tanks and pump stations at significant cost. Compliance with the fire risk engineering standards is becoming more onerous under the current drought conditions.

“Practical approaches towards de-risking properties through enhanced risk engineering programmes can assist in reducing the risks faced by property owners, and in turn insurers.  There are a number of easily implemented measures that can be taken – such as decongesting aisles and warehouses, increasing fire watch guards and patrols, ensuring that stacking heights are adhered to and, where feasible to do so, reducing inventory held onsite. Review all fire safety controls and evacuation plans and ensure that all staff and tenants are trained and well versed in such plans and that exits are clearly marked and accessible,” Moriarty says.

It’s essential that fire risk programmes are designed fit-for-industry purpose from the outset, ensuring that the financial investment is spent on the best possible solutions and to avoid redundancy.  Second, the quality of the fire risk programme directly impacts the cost of insurance premiums based on how effectively the exposures are mitigated.  Risk managers should also update underwriters on all programme enhancements as these potentially could bring down the cost of insurance if exposures are reduced.

Certain industry types also present unique fire exposures and demand superior risk engineering programmes. In such instances, underwriters will look to manage their line size exposures and potentially reduce the impact of a major loss by apportioning the risk across multiple carriers, increasing excess deductibles or considering alternative risk transfer strategies (ART) where the risks are considered uninsurable. ART is a method of protecting business assets by making use of non-traditional methods available in the insurance market, and is most suited to clients with mature risk strategies and focused commitment to loss prevention.

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