Liability risks are growing because the American population is becoming an increasingly litigious society, a Utah State University staff member says.

According to Ken Peterson of the USU Risk Management Services Office, awareness of potential hazards is catching up with existing risks. And in our society, more and more people are inclined to sue. Universities are not exempt from those suits, Peterson says. "Unfortunately, universities are often viewed as a `deep pocket' for lawsuits."Major safety concerns at Utah State University are for students, employees, the public and damage to the university's physical assets.

Peterson says a major campus objective is to protect the university from financial loss resulting from accidents, catastrophic events, lawsuits and other consequences resulting from liability.

Other objectives are to preserve facilities from unplanned damage, destruction or depletion, and to maintain a safe environment for students, employees and the public within the university's sphere of liability.

Efforts are ongoing to hold down costs by controlling accidental and other losses, Peterson says.

Fred Behm of Student Services, who is also affiliated with the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department, is one of a number of individuals on campus who have developed guidelines for dealing with the realm of risk in specific areas.

"In physical activity programs, it is impossible to completely eliminate the risk of injury, but risks can be reduced or minimized. That has become imperative in today's litigious society."

The efforts to minimize risk must be thorough according to both Peterson and Behm, so considerable attention is devoted to both creating awareness of potential risk and developing channels of communication regarding hazards.

Peterson says his office works closely with the fire marshal and campus police on bodily injury and property damage.

A major effort is being made to deal with biohazards and the handling of other harmful substances by the USU Safety Office.

The USU Physical Plant Office maintains the safety of buildings and utility systems.

In his risk handbook, Behm says the obvious way for any organization to avoid or escape liability is not to be negligent.

There are ways of minimizing risk after normal precautions are taken.

Waiver forms and consents are used to provide the university some protection. Behm says voluntary assumption of risk occurs when persons consent to participate in certain activities such as contact sports, so liability for the university may not be a factor when normal accidents take place in the sports.

Damages from liability are sometimes minimized for institutions when an individual fails to exercise reasonable care for his or her own safety and contributes to the negligence, Behm says.

Peterson says avoidance, prevention, reduction, assumption and transference (insurance) are standard approaches taken in risk management at USU and each is used in varying degrees.

Behm notes that in physical education and recreation programs, supervision plays a key role in risk reduction, and on a national basis, supervisory negligence is the most frequent cause of litigation in the sport and recreation area.

At USU, Behm says, this type negligence is offset by care in the hiring process, staff training programs - including emergency training - employment guidelines, supervision of those doing the supervising and careful record keeping.