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EXPERT OPINION

Harsh Realities
How home builders can prepare for extreme winter weather

By Ryan D. N. Jones

No matter the size or scale of the business, anyone who builds homes in Canada has learned to face the harsh realities of working through the winter. However, no matter how seasoned one may be, it is important to realize that extreme weather patterns are increasing in severity and frequency.
According to the U.S National Weather Service, there is a 95 per cent chance that the coming El Nino will affect the northern hemisphere this year, and will bring with it extreme weather patterns. Anyone whose livelihood depends on working through the seasons will need to brace for the coming challenges and potential threats to the jobsite.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change further notes that many Canadian industries are at risk from extreme weather. These include transportation and infrastructure, construction and housing, and energy sectors.
Extreme weather brings with it a host of issues, including extended delays, liquidated payments and unforeseen hard costs, and the risks and associated costs can be catastrophic for business.
While the weather is out of our control, managing the risks of working through periods of extreme weather is possible when you understand the exposures, plan ahead and exercise constant vigilance.

Understanding Extreme Weather
From flooding, hail, snowstorms, hurricanes and more, the definition of extreme weather is fluid. While builders and developers can’t plan for each weather pattern, they can mitigate the risk, and prepare for the damage that could result.
Based on claims we have paid at RSA Canada, water damage from extreme weather is the leading cause of general contractors’ claims. The 2013 Alberta flooding was the costliest natural disaster in Canada’s history, with total incurred losses exceeding $1.65 billion. The 2013 Toronto flooding added an addition $940 million in total incurred losses. However, ice storms, hail and tornadoes remain a significant risk factor that must be managed.
The 2013 ice storms in southern Ontario and eastern Canada equated to $200 million of incurred losses. In 2014, the Alberta hailstorms resulted in $537 million of incurred losses. And, although the total incurred losses have not been totally realized by the industry, the 16 tornadoes that touched down throughout Canada in 2015 have already led to losses in excess of $8 million.
Knowing that the damage most likely to result from extreme weather is water damage, project managers and job site workers can plan for this specific issue. For example, in the pre-construction phase designs should include water damage mitigation solutions such as temporary drainage points, full and easy access to water pipes and tanks, and adequate temporary coverage for openings in roofs and unfinished windows.
Another element that comes into play in with regard  to extreme weather is human error. If builders are tired or worn out from extenuating circumstances, human error becomes a factor. Failing to address this risk factor leaves the jobsite at jeopardy. Fatigue typically manifests into cutting corners as the focus turns to completing tasks as quickly as possible. Rushing not only reduces the quality of workmanship, it also increases the chances of not following the correct safety steps. Here’s a real life example from our files:
A contractor was constructing prefabricated homes and installing them on poured foundations. Due to extreme weather that year, months of productivity were lost. As a result, construction was delayed into the following year. As the delay penalties grew, the contractor had increasing financial pressures and began pressing the front-line employees to meet unrealistic goals. This resulted in corner cutting, which in this case led to rushing of measurements for a prefabricated home. When the house arrived, it did not align with the foundation (the garage portion of the house was approximately 3” wider than the foundation). The contractor decided to grind-off all the sill plate anchors from the foundation wall. When the homeowners identified the damage, a structural engineer was called in to develop and modify the design to secure the home to the foundation.

Putting a Plan in Place
To prevent any potential losses caused by extreme weather, builders should focus on three areas: Risk Identification/Assessment, Risk Planning and Risk Control.
Insurance companies can assist in the Risk Assessment process by having an industry specific Risk Engineer visit your job site. During the visit, the Risk Engineer will review policies and procedures to ensure good engineering practices are being utilized. This is especially important for small and mid-sized construction companies in the industry who may not have internal risk assessment expertise.
It is advisable to perform a Risk Assessment at least once every three years. However, it is a good practice to bring them in more frequently in instances where there is a greater potential for loss, such as building homes in unfamiliar terrain and in areas known for highly extreme weather.
An important element of managing risks is timing. A risk management plan must be developed before the extreme winter season hits and should include such measures as emergency evacuation procedures, repair/replacement strategies and safety protocols.
It’s also important that everyone on the jobsite is briefed on new procedures and best practices, and, in some cases, trained to ensure they can help implement these plans. To increase the success of quality control and preventative measures being met, it is best to assign a team member dedicated to overseeing the implementation of the plan.
A sound risk management plan requires some dedicated up-front time and resources, however this practice can ultimately avoid financial loss and reputational damage in the long run.

Ryan D. N. Jones is the Chief Inspector and National Risk Control Leader, Construction & Engineering, Global Specialty Lines for RSA Canada. He has over 10 years’ experience in a risk control capacity and is currently responsible for working with brokers and clients in large complex risk industries. He can be reached at ryan.jones@rsagroup.ca

 

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