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Employment Issues

Refusing to Hire the Unemployed?

by Tami T. on 9/28/2011 8:55:03 AM

There's been talk on the interwebs of employers who have a policy of  rejecting candidates for employment solely on the grounds that they're currently unemployed. Some employers allegedly include in their job postings language to the effect that candidates "must be currently employed" or that "unemployed persons need not apply."

Is this a trend among employers? Hard to tell; it may be an isolated phenomenon. Is this happening primarily in the private sector, or are public sector employers imposing similar requirements? I don't know. But I think local governments, in general, tend to take a more inclusive approach to evaluating the talent pool. A local government exists to serve its community. To shut a portion of that community out of employment opportunities seems contrary to all the efforts that local governments put into the community's well-being and economic development.

The employer rationale for a "must be employed" requirement, if indeed there are many employers imposing it, is baffling. Is there a belief that someone who's unemployed must have been let go because of performance problems? That seems questionable in this age of mass layoffs in every sector. There are plenty of people who find themselves without jobs through no fault of their own.

Prompted by some members of Congress, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission held a meeting on this topic earlier this year.  It's not known whether any regulatory actions may ensue from this meeting. The recently proposed "American Jobs Act" contains provisions that would make it unlawful for employers to fail or refuse to consider an individual for employment because of the individual's status as unemployed.

If you have or are contemplating a "must be employed" requirement for your vacancies, please consider whether such a requirement is in the employer's or community's best interest. It may not yet be against the law to disqualify candidates whose only impediment to getting a job is ... not having a job.  But even if it's not unlawful, it sure doesn't seem very smart. Certainly some applicants are jobless for reasons that ought to keep them from being hired by you. But there are far better ways to sort out those applicants than by a blanket prohibition on considering any and all unemployed persons.


Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On: CIRSA Members and Earthquakes

by Tami T. on 9/27/2011 6:22:52 AM

Having grown up in earthquake country, I'm grateful to live in a place where earthquake activity is isolated and infrequent. But I'm sure the residents in our member municipalities Trinidad and Cokedale feel they are more than frequent enough! Many people were no doubt shaken awake by the magnitude 5.3 earthquake that hit the region close to midnight on August 23, 2011.

The U.S. Geological Survey keeps a running log of earthquakes worldwide over the last 8-30 days, and it's interesting to read. The Trinidad area has been experiencing lots of smaller tremors in addition to the big one on August 23; the region is described by the USGS as having experienced "numerous small and moderate shocks in the last decade."

The Colorado Dept. of Local Affairs Division of Emergency Management says that there are about 100 potentially active faults in Colorado! Our biggest earthquake to date occurred in 1882, when there was a magnitude 6.5 quake in northern Colorado.

After the Trinidad quake, we got a few calls from members asking about their coverage for earthquake-related damage. The good news: earthquake coverage is included in CIRSA members' property coverage. The less-good news: the coverage is limited to $10 million per member per occurrence and in the aggregate annually. There is also an aggregate of $50 million and in the aggregate annually for the membership as a whole.

Is this enough coverage? If a big one hits, most likely not. By way of comparison, a 6.9 magnitude earthquake in San Francisco in 1989 resulted in $7 billion in property damage. With today's building costs, those figures would likely be a lot higher.

So earthquakes are one of those hazards we have to keep our fingers crossed against. If we threw enough member dollars at a property insurer, we could probably get higher limits of coverage. But does it make sense to spend big bucks for earthquake coverage in a state considered "a region of minor earthquake activity"?  We'd be interested in your thoughts.

Some good earthquake safety tips can be found here. As one who had lots of childhood experience with earthquakes, my own advice, if you find yourself in an earthquake, would be to "scream loudly for Mommy." That always worked for me.

General Liability

Friendship Has Its Risks

by Tami T. on 9/21/2011 5:00:10 AM

So a judge walks into a courtroom. (No, this isn't the beginning of a lawyer joke.) He's presiding over a hearing in a criminal matter, and the prosecutor makes a motion to add some charges to the case against the defendant. The judge becomes upset by the motion, and instead of ruling on it, continues the case. The prosecutor is surprised, because he thinks the adding of charges is a pretty routine matter. The prosecutor is even more surprised when he finds out that the judge and the defendant are Facebook "friends." Criticism follows.

Sound like a scenario that could happen in municipal-land? How about these hypotheticals?

  • The Mayor "friends" a person who holds a liquor license from the City. The licensee becomes the subject of a "show cause" hearing before the Council/Liquor Licensing Authority to determine whether the liquor license should be revoked, after a serious of incidents at his bar that have enraged the surrounding neighborhood. Are the neighbors justified in doubting the Mayor's impartiality?

  • A police officer "friends" an acquaintance that he knows only from a motorcyclists' charity organization. The acquaintance is later charged with drug trafficking, and a rumor surfaces that the case is weak because someone tipped off the defendant that he was about to be charged. Is the officer's supervisor justified in wondering if the officer might have been involved in tipping off the defendant?

  • A supervisor is "friended" by an employee she supervises, and thinks nothing of it. Later, some disgruntled employees accuse the supervisor of playing "favorites," and point to her "friend" status with the one employee as an indication that some employees are favored at the expense of others. Are they justified reaching that conclusion?

In each of these hypotheticals, it is quite possible that the conclusions are unjustified. But you can see how the mere act of having someone on your "friend" list can get you wrongly smeared. So what's a person to do? Maybe the most obvious thing is to be cautious about "friending" people. This is especially important if you're an elected official involved in rendering quasi-judicial judgments, or you're involved in law enforcement or regulatory enforcement functions.

You can also make sure your "privacy" settings are set appropriately. It's amazing how many people's social networking lives are an "open book." Of course, we all know there's really no such thing as "privacy" online, so relying solely on one's "privacy" settings can be risky. But why make it so easy for the world to snoop into your personal business?

Maybe you could consider having more than one Facebook account. Or, if you're an elected official, perhaps you could set up a page as a "public figure" (under the category of "governmental official" or "politician") and bypass the "friending" thing altogether.

And, of course, if you're a supervisor, it may be best not to "friend" your employees, especially if you're singling out one or a few to "friend." You may be unintentionally creating an impression of favoritism.

If you have suggestions for this new and emerging area of legal risk, please submit them here or on my Facebook page (just kidding about the latter; I've convinced myself not to friend anyone ever again).

CIRSA Deputy Director Chris Krall and I recently did a webinar on social media risks and rewards. CIRSA members can view the webinar here.

Oh, and for my regular readers (both of you), sorry for the lapse in blogging! I had a series of events at home that sent me underwater for a while, but I'm gradually bobbing my way back up to the surface.


Swimming Pool Drain Cover Recall -- Immediate Action Required

by Tami T. on 5/26/2011 9:52:52 AM

Today, the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced a voluntary recall of about 1 million swimming pool and spa drain covers that were sold from December, 2008 through April, 2011. You can read the CPSC’s press release announcing the recall here. The press release states that the recalled drain covers were incorrectly rated to handle the flow of water through the cover, which could pose a possible entrapment hazard to swimmers and bathers.

Municipalities that operate swimming pools will remember the rush to comply with the Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act. This Act established December 19, 2008 as the date by which swimming pools had to have approved anti-entrapment drain covers installed. Timely compliance was made difficult by the scarcity of complying drain covers.

Please make your personnel in charge of aquatics maintenance aware of this recall right away. (We've sent an email to CIRSA loss control contacts). The links in the CPSC press release will help you ascertain whether your drain covers are part of the recall, and if so, whom to contact regarding replacement or retrofit. There is also a Drain Cover Recall Hotline at 866-478-3521 that is open any time, or visit the Drain Cover Recall Website here.


Tornado Warning

by Tami T. on 5/23/2011 6:54:51 AM

Tornado season is here, and it promises to be a bad one.  A Slate article  points out that the one-day death toll from the spate of tornadoes that hit the South on April 28, 2011 was more than the total number of people who died in tornadoes during the prior three years. And yesterday, a massive tornado flattened much of Joplin, Missouri. The death toll in Joplin is currently at 89 and is expected to rise.

Colorado (especially eastern Colorado) is considered part of the “tornado alley” that cuts a swathe down the center of the country. But, as the April 28 tornadoes (which hit places like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia) demonstrate, tornadoes can happen almost anywhere. Are you prepared? Are your citizens prepared?

Municipal buildings and operations can be severely affected by tornado activity. Limon (1990) and Windsor (2008) are two CIRSA member municipalities that have experienced widespread damage and destruction from tornado activity. It’s critical to have a disaster preparedness plan in place, to review it periodically for necessary updates, and to conduct regular training and drills.

Home preparedness is also important. The American Red Cross has a good Tornado Safety Checklist available on its website.  Suggestions from the checklist include:

  • Have in place a Home Tornado Plan, and practice it. Pick a “safe room” for shelter. It should be in the basement if possible, or a small, windowless interior room, hallway, bathroom, or closet. Conduct home tornado drills, so everyone knows what to do. 

  • Maintain an emergency preparedness kit with first aid items, essential medications, non-perishable foods, manual can opener, bottled water, flashlights, battery-powered radio, and plenty of extra batteries. 

  • Find out whether there are tornado sirens in your community, but don’t rely on them to warn you of an imminent tornado; sirens are really intended to warn those who are outdoors, anyway, so you may not hear one in time if you’re indoors. Stay tuned to your TV, or better yet, get a NOAA weather radio. If you hear that a tornado watch is in effect, that means tornados are possible in and near the watch area; you should be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued, or if you suspect a tornado is approaching. If you hear a tornado warning, it’s time to hurry into your tornado safe room! 

  • Assess your home and yard for flying-missile potential. Prune diseased and damaged tree limbs. Move or secure patio furniture, hanging plants, trash cans, and anything else that can be picked up by the wind and turned into a projectile.

There used to be a myth that mobile home parks attract tornadoes. Not so, of course; it’s just that when a tornado hits a mobile home park or community, the injury and damage potential are likely to be far greater, due to the lack of structural reinforcement and anchoring, and the absence of a basement or other safe area. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that it is best not  to stay in a mobile home during a tornado; instead, the CDC suggests, go to a nearby building or shelter, or lie flat in the nearest ditch ravine, or culvert and shield your head with your hands.

A vehicle also is not a good place to be during a tornado. The CDC says not to try to outrun a tornado in your car! Instead, stop the vehicle and get out. Look for an area without many trees or other vehicles; lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground, and protect your head with an object or with your arms.

In an office setting, move away from windows and glass doorways. Get to the lowest possible floor, in the innermost part of the building. Don’t use elevators. Protect your head and make yourself as small a target as possible by crouching down.

If you’re in a “big box” store or warehouse, you’re also vulnerable. The CDC refers to these structures as “long span” buildings, and notes that they are especially vulnerable because they have roof structures that are supported solely by the outside walls. Malls, theaters, and gymnasiums may also be “long span” buildings. If you find yourself in such a building, the CDC recommends that you get to the lowest level of the building and away from the windows. Or, if necessary, try to get under a door frame or get up against something that will support of deflect falling debris, such as heavy shelving or counters.

A tornado’s power can be overwhelming and indiscriminate in the devastation it wreaks. Education, planning, and preparation are critical to surviving this force of nature.


Bus Driver Caught Using Two Cell Phones, Steering With Elbows!

by Tami T. on 5/17/2011 9:16:48 AM

Oh, you bet I laughed when I saw it: a bus driver captured on video, using not one but two cell phones (it looked like he was talking on one, texting on the other), and steering his bus with his elbows. A passenger bus. On a busy street. In Rome. Have you seen how people drive in Rome?

But this isn’t really a funny topic, unless you think frequent motor vehicle accidents are funny. I guess word hasn’t gotten to Rome that inattention while driving is a major cause of crashes and near-crashes. A 2006 study by the National Safety Council concluded that taking one’s eyes off the road for durations of greater than 2 seconds significantly increases the risk of crashes and near-crashes. 

Driving diversions? There are so many. Fiddling with the radio knobs (check). Changing a playlist on the iPod (check). Applying lipstick (check).  Reading e-mail (I plead the 5th, I mean, no sir). Scarfing down a Beefy Crunch Burrito® on the way to a meeting (check).Trying to figure out why the GPS keeps saying I’m off course (check).

This seems kind of intuitively obvious, but the NSC study found that there’s a clear relationship between involvement in inattention-related crashes and near-crashes and engaging in inattention-related activities. In other words, you can’t just chalk up these crashes and near-crashes to bad luck. Those who frequently engage in attention-diverting activities are much more likely to have crashes or near-crashes.

Most of these attention-diverters are trivial tasks that do not need to be performed while driving. Well, we can debate whether applying lipstick while driving is a critical task. (I vote yes.) But we can all agree that there’s nary a one that is worth the risk of a collision or near-collision. And contrary to some signage you may have seen, it is not the law of the land that citizens must constantly fiddle with their cell phones at all times. So let’s make a pact to stop engaging in these attention-diverting activities while driving!

Note: The CIRSA Loss Control Department is working on a relevant new safety video entitled “The Risk is in the Routine: A New Look at Accident Prevention.” It should be completed and sent to CIRSA members by late summer of 2011. If anyone can get me the address of that bus company in Rome, I will volunteer to personally deliver a complimentary copy. I'll be staying off the buses, though.


Don't Let the Bed Bugs Bite, Part 2: In Which Bed Bug Paranoia Now Encompasses Flesh-Eating Disease

by Tami T. on 5/12/2011 4:46:35 AM

Note: You can read Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite, Part 1 here .

The blog was on a bit of a hiatus last week while I was at a risk management conference in Vancouver, during which I attended, among others, a session on bed bugs. While in Vancouver, my suitcase rode around for a while in a rental car. Today, my bed bug paranoia includes the fear of the MRSA1 superbug. All of these things are connected. Allow me to explain.

The bed bug session was useful, in an ick-making sort of way. I learned that bed bugs are most prevalent in places like hotels and motels, theaters, and rental cars. Rental cars? This is one vehicle option I do not want! I guess it makes sense, because bed bugs can be carried around in luggage. But I wish I’d known this before casually stowing my suitcase in the trunk of a rental car. I also learned that hotels and motels are usually not the source of bed bug infestations; rather, they tend to be the victims of bed bugs carried around in guests’ luggage. But if you’re the guest next following a stay by a bed bug carrier, you could fall victim, too.

OK. So now we come to the MRSA superbug. In my previous post about bed bugs, I repeated the conventional wisdom that bed bugs can inflict psychic horrors, but are not otherwise hazardous to human health. Now comes a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) paper that indicates otherwise. It seems that scientists have found, on patients suffering from superbug-caused infections, bedbugs carrying MRSA or other antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It was only a total of three patients, and five bedbugs, from an impoverished community in one city. But still, the paper indicates that bed bugs may “act as a hidden environmental reservoir for MRSA and may promote the spread of MRSA in impoverished and overcrowded communities.” Great. As if I didn’t have enough to worry about.

The city in which the superbug-carrying bed bugs were found? Vancouver, of course.

Oh, the humanity.


1 MRSA stands for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, a strain of staph that is highly resistant to common antibiotics and can cause a deadly, difficult-to-treat infection.

Employment Issues

Racy Photos Cost Firefighters Their Jobs

by Tami T. on 4/28/2011 7:29:19 AM

Looks like some firefighters in the Victoria, Texas Fire Department recently lost their jobs after displaying, in the fire station, photos of people in sexually provocative poses.

Was this the right thing for the employer to do? Well, it would appear that some type of corrective action was certainly warranted. No doubt the displaying of racy photos or posters was prohibited by the City’s harassment policy, as is the case with most harassment policies.

A professor of criminal justice was quoted in the article about the importance of harassment policies in establishing “an expectation of responsible behavior in the workplace.” He asserted that harassment is usually motivated not by sexual attraction, but rather, by the harasser’s desire to “demonstrate power over the victim.”

Whatever the motivation behind harassing behavior may be, the result of such behavior is that it diminishes the power of the person engaging in it. Any time you make an out-of-line comment or joke,  send an inappropriate email, or post a racy cartoon or photo, you make yourself just a little more vulnerable. You’ve empowered someone to make a complaint against you, and you’ve handed them evidence to back up the complaint. Think of each of those transgressions as a live hand grenade that you’ve just given out. You will never know when the recipient may decide to pull the pin and lob it back in your direction.

Some people pooh-pooh harassment policies as “political correctness” invading the workplace. But the law requires employers to have these policies in place, and to be serious about enforcing them. Whether or not you see eye-to-eye with the need to establish “an expectation of responsible behavior in the workplace,” you must surely agree that giving away your power unnecessarily is a bad idea. So for self-preservation's sake, if nothing else, please make sure that harassment policies are taken seriously.


Workers, Don't Let the Trenches Collapse on Your Bodies....

by Tami T. on 4/19/2011 5:32:43 AM

Another trench collapse. Another accident that could have been avoided. Another person suffering from injuries he didn’t have to incur.

This time, it appears that the man in the trench escaped with his life. Others involved in trench collapses haven’t been as fortunate. This 1985 collapse in Sedalia killed two men in a trench installing drainage pipe, and two other men who leaped in to try to rescue them. There have been many similar tragedies in Colorado and nationwide. Municipal workers have suffered in such incidents, too.

Every time I hear about one of these incidents, I get angry. Because this is one type of accident that absolutely can be avoided.  Every supervisor and employee involved in trenching and excavating needs to be well-versed in the hazards and how to avoid them. Written procedures consistent with OSHA standards must be in place, and must be followed consistently. These are among CIRSA’s most important loss control standards for members. What? You’re a small town and it’s burdensome to comply? Well, let's talk about an exemption from this standard after you obtain an exemption from the laws of gravity, okay?

There are many resources available to assist you. Please contact the CIRSA Loss Control Department. Check out this excellent Loss Alert the Department prepared. Peruse the many materials available from OSHA. And this is a handy OSHA Quickcard you can use. There is no excuse for allowing a trench collapse to occur because you didn’t follow safe practices and procedures. Please don’t let it happen in your entity.

Sing it with me!

Workers, Don't Let the Trenches Collapse on Your Bodies
(with apologies to Ed & Patsy Bruce, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and all those Mamas and Cowboys, and thanks to Bob and Jay in Loss Control for their help)

Workers, don’t let the trenches collapse on your bodies
Don’t go trenchin’ without proper protection around you
Remember the sloping and shoring and shielding

Bosses, don’t let your workers die in a collapse
A competent person should be there during the diggin’
Inspect every trench at the start of each shift

Trenches ain’t easy to dig, and the sides may not hold
They’d rather give in to gravity and cave in
The sides will buckle and crush whatever they can

Trenches 4 feet or deeper require safe access
If 5 feet or deeper a protective system is needed
Engineer for twenty feet or deeper

Workers, don’t ever enter an unprotected trench
It’s better you stay safe than become a statistic
Remember all the fatalities that happen each year

Workers, don’t let the trenches collapse on your bodies
Don’t go trenchin’ without proper protection around you
Remember the sloping and shoring and shielding

General Liability

The Lathe and the Damage Done

by Tami T. on 4/14/2011 8:59:59 AM

You may have read about the tragic death of a Yale student in a lathe accident. It appears that the student’s hair became caught in a lathe, resulting in her asphyxiation. It’s hard to think of a more horrific way to die. My heart goes out to her family, friends, and colleagues.

Municipal employees operate power machinery and equipment, and so are susceptible to these and other types of injuries. Please make sure such machinery and equipment are properly maintained and have appropriate safety features in place. More importantly, please make sure all personnel operating such machinery and equipment develop and maintain safe working habits, wear appropriate personal protective equipment, and maintain a constant state of awareness.

Lathes and other rapidly spinning tools are especially scary because of the things that can get caught up in them – long hair, long sleeves, loose clothing, watches and rings, etc. In the case of the Yale student, photos indicate that she may have had long hair that should have been tied back and out of the way. 

For lack of an elastic hair band, a person’s life was lost. It’s a tragedy beyond words. Please don’t let anything like this happen on your watch.

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