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Inside The Hartford's investigative lab

Tucked away in the depths of The Hartford's main tower in downtown Hartford, Conn., the insurance company has carved out six rooms for its unassuming industrial-hygiene laboratory. So modest is the lab that many employees, including people from public relations, don't know it's there. But however unpretentious the lab appears, it's hardly a lightweight.

When it finds a problem, the team moves quickly into education mode.

A five-person team — headed by four chemists, three of whom are Certified Industrial Hygienists — maintains the lab and its cutting-edge equipment. The chemists calibrate and deconstruct a constant stream of customer-provided data, like air samples and product samples, in order to detect quality problems. When it finds a problem, the team moves quickly into education mode, formulating solutions and preventive measures for its customers.

Imagine, for example, a 50,000-square-foot warehouse full of frozen cakes ready to ship to all parts of the country. The ice cream cakes, adorned with frosting bunting and creamy icing, were tainted by fumes from routine floor waxing. Who's going to make sure those cakes are OK to send out? An insurance company loss-control lab.

The questionable cakes were sent to The Hartford's Industrial Hygiene Laboratory for a contaminant check. The lab found the cakes had been tainted with the corrosive compound styrene, a chemical found in floor sealers. "These cakes looked great on the outside," says Cindy Gosselin, lab supervisor. Styrene, when ingested, can cause abdominal pain, nausea, and drowsiness.

"With our analysis, we kept them from the public, saved the company any PR problems, and the insurance company didn't have to pay out on any [product] liability claims," she says. The cakes had to be thrown out, despite how tasty they appeared to be.

Complacency? Bring it on!

The Hartford lab's priorities are air and product quality in the workplace, although it handles a handful of paint and asbestos samples from individual homeowners. With the use of state-of-the-art mass spectrometers, gas chromatographs, inductively coupled plasmas, and microscopes, The Hartford's staff processes thousands of samples a year, ranging from asbestos fibers to welding dust.

Homeowners concerned about lead-paint chips or asbestos fouling their remodeling plans can send suspicious fiber or paint samples to the lab in order to avoid potential hazards. If you feel you've watched enough "Hometime" and "This Old House" to perform your own home maintenance, you'll want to find out just what's lurking on and behind those walls. Call (800) 986-3509 to contact the lab.

However, the bulk of the lab's work comes from commercial enterprises. "Twenty years ago, someone was actually breathing [contaminants] and they didn't know better," says Ann McClure, manager of the lab. And even with hazard awareness heightened today, it's still happening. "I can show you some dust samples that are pretty heavy. People are complacent," explains McClure. "You'll go to the supervisors with your data and they blow you off. That's a problem."

Shape-shifting on the job

"If the workers see loss-control staffers around, they know the management is committed to safety."

Lab supervisor Gosselin says the staffers in the lab are part detective and part teacher, not to mention part chemist. They must run the measurement devices, analyze results, draw conclusions, and suggest to their customers ways to improve occupational safety. Each lab staffer must also keep up on quality-control issues within the industry, study published research, and take courses for re-accreditation from the American Industrial Hygiene Association every three years.

Complacency is the bane of The Hartford's industrial hygienists, who constantly battle it at their customers' sites. Having loss-control and safety officers walking through job sites is one way The Hartford suggests companies heighten safety consciousness. "If the workers see loss-control staffers around, they know the management is committed to safety," and thus the workers are more careful. Company safety-incentive programs, in which employees police themselves, and state-agency awards also focus workers on safety.

What a concept

But it's not all tea and cakes at the lab. The facility is there to turn a profit for The Hartford. "We know the business," says McClure. "We're in the beginning stages of growing, and that's why The Hartford keeps us open."

Industrial-hygiene labs are traditionally pricey to run, and it often doesn't make sense for an insurance company to maintain its own. However, automation, quick turnaround time, and a broad range of experience can make the lab cost-efficient. Most samples can be processed within seven days, but the lab will do rush-testing. That might not sound lightning-fast, but Gosselin contends that it is better than the industry average. Gosselin also cites the complexity of running some of the samples through tests. "They're not like a glucose test in a hospital that you get back in 20 minutes," she says.

Depending on the sample and the examination technique, The Hartford charges between $28 and $300 per sample. The lab also rents out air-quality testing and noise-pollution testing equipment for between $125 and $350, depending on the instruments and length of rent. However, many of The Hartford's commercial policyholders receive the lab's services as part of their policy premiums.

Although lab personnel were tight-lipped when Insure.com asked which companies use their services, they volunteered that the lab was testing a rug from a nationally known high-end retailer that may have been laced with formaldehyde. The Hartford's industrial hygiene lab also takes on work from six other insurance companies, but lab officials declined to name them. Competition from Travelers and other industrial air-quality testing facilities — Michigan-based Clayton Laboratories and Rochester, N.Y.-based Galson Labs, for example — is stiff, so The Hartford guards its customers closely.

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