Sound risk management involves many preventative actions and processes, to maintain facilities and equipment, and to mitigate potential claims. Unfortunately, many of these actions go unrecognized without documentation that the tasks were completed. Two real-world situations to illustrate:
ABC City experienced a sewer back-up that flooded the living quarters of a private home. This resulted in the resident vacating the home and moving into a motel for nearly a month. When the claim for damages to the home was submitted, a request was made to the city for documentation of their sewer inspections and maintenance. The city’s public works staff responded that sewer lines were periodically inspected but could not produce written records of any inspections or completed maintenance. This severely hindered the city’s defense efforts, which led to the city ultimately settling with the homeowner for over $100,000.
XYC City also experienced a sewer back-up, which caused raw sewage to back-up into a restaurant. Because the back-up occurred in the sewer main line under the street, city staff thought that the city was likely responsible for the damages, and the city contacted their insurance company to report the back-up before a claim was even submitted. The claims adjuster requested and reviewed the documentation of sewer inspections.
The area where the back-up had occurred was a known low spot in the main. Less than two weeks prior to the back-up, XYZ City’s public works staff had inspected the main on both sides of the low point, noting that the line was running free and clear. Additionally, the city had documentation reaching back several years for their entire sanitary sewer system inspections and maintenance activities. The documentation demonstrated that the city was being a responsible utility owner and, consequently, was not liable for the back-up and damages to the restaurant. Instead, it was later established that restaurant employees had caused the back-up by dumping grease down the drain and had not properly maintained their grease trap. Without this documentation, XYZ City could have been liable for significant clean-up and restoration expenses.
Benefits of Documentation
For local governments, there are several benefits to documenting the many daily activities conducted by staff, not just sewer system operations. These benefits include:
What to Document
Documentation should include all inspections and maintenance activities, as well as repairs conducted, and replacements made. While the list of what should be documented will vary by entity type, there are some common activities that should be documented across all public agencies, whether you are city, county, water or sewer utility, school district, fire district, or other government agency.
Inspection reports should contain the below items:
While documentation can be as simple as a spiral notebook with hand-written entries; many organizations use sophisticated asset management or work-order systems to not only track inspections and incident reports, but to also receive reminder tasks for preventative maintenance issues (e.g. cleaning ‘hot-spot’ sewer lines). These systems can also often include pictures of sites before and after work is completed
Documentation and reports should provide sufficient detail so that someone who was not present when the work was performed, or when the problem was addressed, could fully understand what transpired.
Documentation offers many benefits to you as a worker and to your agency, the least of which is that ongoing and thorough documentation can help reduce an agency’s liability when a claim occurs.