SMOHIT honors professionals aiming to make the industry safe for apprentices, journeymen

Safety isn’t a second thought in the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry – it has to be a way of life, or death could be a consequence. SMOHIT works with professionals inside and outside of the industry to create a safety culture that will benefit all apprentices and journeymen. Recipients of SMOHIT’s 2014 Safety Awards demonstrate the organization’s commitment to bringing those inside and outside the industry together to prevent workplace injuries and illness.

Dr. Laura Welch is honored for helping to keep workers in good medical condition.
Dr. Laura Welch is honored for helping to keep workers in good medical condition.

Drs. David Hinkamp and Laura Welch are physicians who partner with SMOHIT to keep workers in good medical condition, while the staff at Local No. 28 in Jamaica, New York works to educate workers on safety and keep their authorizations current. On the contractor side, Jeff Sullivan, safety manager for The Brandt Companies LLC in Dallas, works with Sheet Metal Workers Local No. 68 to keep employees updated and in compliance with safety standards. Obie Torres, a sheet metal instructor for more than 40 years, has spent his retirement making sure future sheet metal workers know how to stay alive and injury-free on the job site. Don Gallion, outside sales representative for Fasteners Inc. in Las Vegas, provides training and demonstrations on fall protection, scaffolding, proper use of ladders and body harnesses, OSHA and more.

“It’s inspiring to see what people are doing across the country to ensure our sheet metal workers are safe on the job site and go home to their families every night,” said Randy Krocka, administrator for SMOHIT. “These awards shine a light on the excellent work to create a safety culture and the people ­– from the education of members to the medical professionals conducting the screenings – who go above and beyond to make sure that happens.”

HinkampNominees are selected on the basis of providing exemplary training methodology, outreach activities, wellness activities, research, outstanding program development and implementation, any innovative health and/or safety initiatives or by using SMOHIT training curricula to create a safety culture within the unionized sheet metal and air conditioning industry.

Hinkamp, co-director of the health in the arts program at University of Illinois, Chicago Hospital School of Public Health, has worked in occupational and environmental health since 1982. When he began working with SMOHIT 25 years ago, the idea was to find clinics to screen workers in major cities for asbestos exposure. Today, Hinkamp travels to 25 cities more than eight to 10 weeks out of the year to bring the services to locals throughout the country, so they don’t have to rely on a clinic.

Members should be screened every five years. Through the screenings, other illnesses can be detected, allowing doctors to refer patients to local specialists.

“It’s better to be able to provide top-notch services in locations regardless of where they come from,” Hinkamp said. “This program, although it’s focused on asbestos – looks at the whole cardio/respiratory system. Members who take advantage of this program have the awareness of the importance of these health tools. This is an important program many other organizations have let drop, but it’s the one the sheet metal workers have worked hard to preserve.”

Welch has been working as a medical consultant with SMOHIT since 1988, also in the screening program. Her job, however, is to identify physicians, analyze results and present the findings to the SMOHIT board of trustees. A recent retiree from the Center of Construction Research, Training and Safety, Welch knows how to identify health and safety risks on a job site, and more importantly, how to fix them.

“That’s my role in life, my work, to prevent sheet metal workers from hurting their shoulders and backs. Working with SMOHIT has been great because they’re trying to better the health and safety of the workers,” she said. “I love sheet metal workers. Of all the construction trades, they’re my favorite. They’re wonderfully nice people. They show up early. They’re very appreciative. At the local unions, they’re looking out for their members.”

In 1988, 40 percent of sheet metal workers older than age 55 had scarring on their lungs from asbestos exposure. Today, less than 3 percent of sheet metal workers younger than 60 have scarring, Welch said. This is because workers were educated to say “no” if contractors wanted to complete work that would expose them to asbestos. Educating contractors and the workers has been an ongoing effort that’s working. Out of 16 construction trades, only the sheet metal workers and one other have a safety organization supported by the union, Welch added.

The next step is to have sheet metal workers fill out a detailed questionnaire when they come in for their screening and breathing test, so Welch can see who is in danger of emphysema due to dust and welding fume exposure.

“I really think it’s improved the health and safety to have SMOHIT there, working with the contractors,” Welch said. “The union supported SMOHIT, which educated people. Sheet metal workers stopped being exposed to asbestos when that wasn’t the case for other trades. And the union stood behind them.”

Evidence of SMOHIT and contractors working together is apparent at The Brandt Companies, where Sullivan has been the safety manager for five years. Also an apprentice instructor for OSHA 10 and 30 at Local No. 68 in Dallas, Sullivan uses personal experience to keep employees in check. One reality check is to have them write down a message they’d like him to deliver to their families “if they do something dumb and die,” he said.

“I make it personal. The union is a brotherhood, and I don’t like to see my brothers and sisters in pain. A childhood friend of mine died in a construction accident from a fall. If there’s anything I can do to keep them living longer, I’m all about that,” Sullivan added. “I love life. I love seeing my union brothers with their wives and kids. You can’t see them if they’re not safe. There are too many things in this industry that can take your life in a split second.”

The days of doing things the wrong way because a contractor wanted to take shortcuts is rarer than even a decade ago.

“I see the whole construction industry changing. General contractors require so much more safety training,” Sullivan said. If an employee is caught breaking the rules, they are suspended from the job site. For a fall protection-related infraction, workers are sent home for three days. “It’s easier to get them to see we need to take an extra 10 to 15 minutes rather than losing an employee because the general contractor sent him home for a safety violation. They also don’t want a fatality associated with their job site.”

For Local No. 28 in New York and Obie Torres, safety instructor for Local No. 67 in Austin, Texas, teaching safety starts at the beginning when workers are apprentices. Local No. 28 expanded its OSHA program and made sure all the full-time instructors were properly trained in OSHA 500. More than 2,000 members participated in evening OSHA classes this year, while apprentices earned their certificates of completion during the day.

“I’ve been steadily trying to increase safety training since I came into this position. Consistently over the last three years, the goal has been to get all the full-time instructors OSHA-trained and ramp up the crew at night to teach all the members in order to keep up with the industry needs,” said Leah Rambo, training coordinator at Local No. 28. “Our goal is to make safety part of the culture. For it to be part of the culture, you have to bombard them with it. We want our members to go home every day after work.”

In addition to OSHA classes, Local No. 28 offers four-hour scaffolding and GHS/HazCom courses.

“We try to stay ahead of the game, so our members never have to turn down work because they don’t have the proper training,” Rambo added. “A safer worker is a better worker. People do a better job when they feel safe on the job. They go home with their fingers and their lives.”

Torres, a retiree, has a passion for safety and for empowering apprentices with knowledge.

“I’ve had near misses and accidents before certain safety measure were in place,” Torres said. “I’ve been fortunate I’ve never had a serious accident. Back then, working in the shop, you handled sheet metal all day long. I was fortunate I never lost a finger. Things we didn’t do back then are now habit. It has to become a habit like putting on your pants in the morning. And they know they have to take care of their safety equipment. If they do all that, they don’t have to think about it.”

He uses his expertise to empower the students to spot safety hazards at work and share them. This turns apprentices into safety champions on their job sites and pushes them to look deeper and pay attention to details.

“It’s not going to be perfect,” he said. “We’re always going to have accidents, but it does get better from one generation to the next.”

Each year, the SMOHIT Safety Awards remind members the safety culture is growing and how far it’s come.

“It is members of their community trying to preserve the health of the members in their community,” Hinkamp said. “It’s people looking out for their colleagues.”

For additional information about the SMOHIT Safety Awards, or any of the programs highlighted here, visit or call 703-739-7130.

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