Our forensics lab: the science behind business insurance

Discover what goes on under the microscope at Travelers.

Forensics engineers in Travelers' forensics lab using digital forensics equipment for small business insurance claims investigationsForensics engineers in Travelers' forensics lab using digital forensics equipment for small business insurance claims investigations

Travelers' state-of-the-art engineering laboratory in Windsor, Connecticut, in the US, deals with more than 3,000 claims each year. It’s equipped with the expertise and high-tech equipment that allow the team to investigate many different areas. Lab Vice Presidents John Machnicki and Jim O’Neill take us behind the scenes.

Q: What is forensic engineering?

John Machnicki: "If you take the word engineering, it’s just that, except it’s applied to the legal world. We’re answering questions that people like litigators need answers to."

Q: How many people work at the forensics lab?

Jim O’Neill: "Just over 70. The majority are based in Windsor, at the lab. We have 17 engineers located in claims offices across the US. About 45 are dedicated full time to forensics. And there are about 20 involved in the Industrial Hygiene Lab operation."

Q: Are fire cases the most common thing you get at the lab?

John: "I would’ve said “yes” ten years ago, but now we see lots of water cases and we have an entire group of people who deal just with construction defects. We get construction cases, corrosion cases, material-failure cases, equipment breakdown, food claims and so on. But a good portion of our work is looking at fires. We have three full-time chemists analysing fire-debris samples for the presence of accelerants. We get about 10,000 of those samples a year through here."

Jim: "And we haven’t even touched on the digital forensics."

Q: Tell us more about digital forensics…

Jim: "It’s interesting because one thing that the lab has been doing for quite a while now is video and audio analysis. In the UK, CCTV cameras are everywhere. We use our capabilities here to support the UK in looking at CCTV camera evidence during the claim process."

John: "This year, we’re massively expanding our digital forensic capability. We’re building a new laboratory. We’ve expanded our staff and our capability to include social media and digital devices like smartphones, tablets, computers, etc."

Q: What types of cases do small businesses often face?

Jim: "Small businesses often face water damage claims, either from weather-related issues but most often they happen because of a failed component in the plumbing system. You’d be surprised by how much property damage is caused by simple toilet supply lines or indoor plumbing failing. We handle thousands of those claims.

Most people don’t realise that a very inexpensive part that they have in their kitchens or bathrooms could leak and release water without anybody being there. And it can cause significant property damage."

Q: Are there any other insurance companies that have in-house forensics teams like yours?

John: "Nobody has a lab like ours, not that we’re aware of. There are insurance companies that have a handful of investigators on staff but nowhere near the scale that we’ve got."

Jim: "It’s more common to use outside experts, where a consultant is hired to investigate that one claim. The downside is that information resides with that one investigator so, as a company, they don’t learn from that investigation and the company can’t really make use of it, to improve their risk control and selection of other insurance."

Q: Can anyone from Travelers, anywhere, contact the lab to get help with a claim?

Jim: "We have a forensic resource in Canada who is an extension of the lab. But we’re open to consult on any claim across the world."

Q: No matter how small?

John: "If someone from Travelers in the UK calls with a small issue, we’ll try to deal with it. There are plenty of times we’ve taken a call on a small claim that we’ve wanted to get involved in because it could’ve been a very big claim."

Q: What state-of-the-art technology does the laboratory use?

Jim: "Things such as a scanning electron microscope, that’s often used in failure analysis. We also do our own digital x-rays. We often x-ray something right away before we have to do anything destructive to it. We also have access to CT equipment."

John: "Plus, we have a chemistry lab that’s fully equipped. I could spend an entire day going through all the stuff we’ve got. The idea is that we can move a claim quickly. If you don’t have all the equipment in one spot, what could be done in one or two days here could take months."

Q: What’s the best thing about working at the forensics lab?

John: "For me, it’s something different all the time. Before I came to the insurance industry, I worked in the nuclear industry and I would be on one project for over a year. Here you move from fire to fraud documents to corrosion to a construct defect. Plus, you’re constantly learning. Right now, I’m learning everything I can about digital-forensic techniques and cyber issues. That was brand new to me just last year."

Jim: "We see a lot of claims that repeat themselves but every day there’s a new challenge. Variety is what it’s all about."