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Building a Risk Management Culture

By Kristin Withrow posted 02-27-2023 02:43 PM


By Kristin Withrow, CSDA Communications Specialist; published in California Special Districts Magazine January/February 2023

The Special District Risk Management Authority is hosting its annual SDRMA Spring Education Day on March 22 at the Hilton Sacramento Arden West. The event provides risk management training focused on property coverage, general liability and workers’ compensation. The keynote address will be “Building a Culture of Risk Management” by Dean Coughenour.  Registration for Spring Education Day is open!

man wearing yellow hard hat falling off ladder

Coughenour brings 30 years of experience in proactive risk management, with emphasis on reducing risk factors, grassroots integration of the risk management decision matrix, safety, insurance and litigation management. He recently retired from his position of Risk Manager with the city of Flagstaff and has served on industry boards and associations including the Arizona Municipal Risk Retention Board, and the national board of Public Entity Risk and Insurance.


“Building a Culture of Risk Management” strives to motivate attendees to build an environment where employees feel empowered to protect not only themselves, but each other. Risk management’s overarching goal is to “eliminate the potential for claims and losses associated with employee injury, vehicle accidents, property losses and lawsuits,” said Coughenour, “it includes a view of historical elements inside an organization and what’s changing external to the organization.”


Historically, risk management compelled us to ask: What can we do to protect the organization - policies, procedures, and compliance with laws. Coughenour takes that question one step further, asking who is the Risk Manager in your organization? His answer expands the limited focus on risk management as belonging to “the” risk management officer. Coughenour asserts the need to look to our employee base, the frontline decision-makers where the exposure occurs, and employ ways to have them realize they are all risk managers.


“The key is to connect with them on an emotional level,” said Coughenour. “When the culture shifts so they realize they are all risk managers, and they begin to understand they can protect each other, we begin to build the culture we need.”


Creating a training program designed to allow employees to connect the dots between a risk management mindset and returning home safely is the key to cultural adoption of the risk management mindset in the organization.


“The biggest incentive for individuals to accept the responsibility for risk management is the desire to return home at the end of each day in the same way physically as they came in that morning,” he said.


The presentation provides a solution to allow people to generate ideas and take pieces of the presentation back to their own organization to begin building a culture to protect the employees and the organization’s assets. The individual acceptance of the concept is critical to allow the employee to understand they are the one in the moment that can help make a difference. Shifting the culture such that the individual ownership of risk management coincides with the team’s acceptance of risk management provides for a framework of trust and cooperation that results in a safer workplace.


Coughenour asked, “Who’s always at the scene of the accident or incident? And who’s always at the scene two minutes before the accident or incident?” The answer: The person who is involved in the accident or incident. His point is that there are often coworkers or others on the scene before an accident occurs who could help see the situation developing and step in to change the situation to avoid an accident. This is more likely to occur if a culture of risk management is in place.


Depending on the starting place of the organization, it takes 3-6 years to build a culture where everyone is watchful and willing to step in to help avoid accidents and look out for each other. The cultural shift and cultural support takes time to develop and allow employees to trust it.


Take an example of a work crew heading to a job site. If they take the time to pause and briefly review the areas of risk exposure they are likely to encounter before they even begin work, they remind each other of the safety mechanisms in place and the intention for all to adhere to those mechanisms, and the risk exposure lessens. Such prep and team focus can be the reason someone chooses the safer method of climbing a ladder versus succumbing to temptation to carry too much in one trip and risk a fall. Or it may be the mindset shift that reminds someone to wear the protective gear despite it being a warm day where the gear is less comfortable.


The bottom line is that while companies must have policies and procedures in place, people don’t adhere to rules just because they exist. When it comes to personal safety, in an organization with a culture of risk management where everyone internalizes their role in working safely and watching out for each other, it is the personal safety mindset that will inform their actions more that the rote acknowledgement that they must follow a rule. The culture shift is the underlying trust in each other motivated by the desire to remain uninjured that allows a team member to call a “time out” when they see a risky situation developing. The person who was working in a way that created risk must be able to receive the note of caution with a mindset of gratitude for an accident averted rather than a mindset of defensiveness.


It’s easy to write a policy that says you must have three connection points on a ladder at all times when climbing, but it is memorable to understand how much easier it is to fall when your arms are full, and that the risk is not worth the time savings of trying to carry too much at once. When one team member sees a coworker attempt to take the short cut, they feel empowered to pause the work and stop the situation from causing an accident.


“Building a Culture of Risk Management” promises to be entertaining, motivating and inspiring. Attendees will learn how to build effective working relationships with other departments and establish effective and self-sustaining risk management results from a strong risk and safety culture.