Mike Allen and slide

SMOHIT hosts first virtual Safety Champions Conference

The seventh Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust Inc. (SMOHIT) Safety Champions Conference was held virtually March 30-31 and attended by approximately 120 coordinators, business agents, business managers, contractors, safety directors, executives from labor and management and strategic partners from across the country.

Speakers included Joseph Sellers, Jr., general president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers; Cal Beyer, vice president of workforce risk and worker wellbeing for CSDZ; Angela Simon, president of the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA); Mike McCullion, CSP ARM, SMACNA director of market sectors and safety; Scott Ernest, deputy director for construction and program coordinator for the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) Office of the Director; Chris Carlough, SMART education director; Scott Ketcham, director of directorate of construction for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); Phillip Ragain, director of training and human performance and partner of The RAD Group; Ben Cort, principal consultant for Cort Consulting, Inc.; Mike Allen, co-founder and director of operations for The RAD Group; Linda M. Goldenhar, Ph.D., director of research and evaluation for CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training; and Jason Galoozis, director of safety for F.E. Moran.

Although SMOHIT continued its promotion and brainstorming of positive safety cultures and how to get workers’ buy-in, a common thread throughout the conference was how to keep workers mentally and physically safe.

SMART has been focused on members’ mental health for nearly a decade, and the pandemic has provided a number of challenges. It also has underlined the importance of disseminating information and training members to help each other find professional help when necessary.

“It’s been a long and hard road and we need to make sure we are there for those in need. Mental health, substance abuse, suicide and COVID-19 stress has continued,” Sellers said during his opening remarks. “An injury to one of us is an injury to all of us. Each of us can lead to change.”

“It’s critical to me that every one of my employees gets home safely every day,” Simon added.

But providing safety doesn’t end at work. A safety legacy, which includes addressing mental health, physical health, suicide and substance abuse, can extend through the decades, Ragain said. Leaving a safety legacy was the primary theme of the first day of the conference.

“Leaving an impact on upcoming generations, the people you interact with, is the heart of creating a safety legacy,” he added. “It’s the impact that we leave on people, the lasting impact that endures when we’re no longer around.”

A positive or negative safety legacy is up to you, Allen said during his keynote address.

When supervisors and foremen walk the walk, it has the most effect on employees and sets the safety culture without a lot of pomp and circumstance. Negative influence happens when a manager walks around without safety gear or personal protective equipment (PPE).

A former football coach and oil executive, Allen shared stories throughout his career that changed how he viewed safety, from a student who was paralyzed during a bad tackle to a work colleague who was crushed. Complacency and the lack of training are two things anyone can improve upon to decrease workplace accidents.

“Because OSHA says so” isn’t a reason to be safe. Watching friends die and delivering the news to their families, in addition to taking responsibility for allowing the colleague to perform unsafe practices, should be reasons enough to protect the people around you, Allen said.

“Life is made of defining moments,” he added, paraphrasing the movie “Tin Cup.” “You either define the moment or the moment defines you.”

Allen experienced the grief of losing a friend and coworker to unsafe practices. For him, from that point on, the real reasons to promote safety, beyond OSHA and regulations, were five names — the names of the five daughters his friend left behind.

“If you set safety levels for your employees, they will meet that lowest mark,” Allen said. “We must do better. Our employees are our teammates, our team. Your team is only as strong as the weakest link. If we harass and disrespect one of our team, we are creating a weak link.”

The general idea is to not make safety scary or negative. Employees should feel good about speaking up about a safety concern. Leadership should feel good about accepting those concerns and addressing them in a way that leads to a lasting, positive impact.

“We don’t want safety cops; we want safety coaches who will catch people doing the right things,” Allen said. “Coaches now talk about culture. Managers, supervisors, team leaders are coaches. A coach cannot be out on the field with the players, but the players reflect the coach’s influence whether the coach is present or not.”

The day’s breakout session was used to discuss a safety legacy and how attendees wanted their views and actions on safety to be remembered. Participants discussed opening conversations between labor and management; proactive training; leading by example; leaving an impact; retiring healthy; seeing safety as something that is valuable; and treating safety directors as a resource, not a safety cop.

“I want to leave the safety culture better than how it was found,” one person said.

Substance abuse, suicide and mental health are examples of safety issues that exist on and off the job site. For an addict, by the time red flags are raised at work about substance abuse, the illness has already significantly progressed, Carlough and Cort agreed.

“When people have these problems, and they start to show up at work, it’s the tip of the iceberg, so to speak,” Carlough added. “When someone has an active addiction, the job is the last thing to experience a problem.”

An addict is commonly viewed as homeless, or someone who holds a cardboard sign on the side of the road, and that stereotype cannot be further from the truth.

“By the time it starts to show up at work, we’ve got a pretty serious issue,” Cort said. “The majority of people who need our help aren’t the folks living outside, the folks not working. The majority of people who need help have full-time jobs. A lot of them are in this field, and a lot of them work for you.”

According to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, only a few months into the pandemic. It was the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

“It’s not just getting worse,” Cort said. “It’s getting much, much, much worse.”

With the legalization of marijuana in more states every year, Carlough and Cort are working to educate union leadership in those states about their rights and the rights of their employees, members and apprentices. This led the SMART Members Assistance Program (MAP), led by Carlough, to create “Welcome to Weed Country,” a special workshop to reach state union leadership to educate them about marijuana’s fairly recent potency spike and how it affects depth perception, fine and gross motor skills, memory stacking and other functions; and to inform them of their rights under the Federal Drug-Free Workplace Act.

Through programs such as “Welcome to Weed Country” and SMART MAP, Carlough’s goal is to train 20,000 members in the next two years as mental health ambassadors.

“The more we start talking about suicide prevention, the more we start talking about substance abuse, the more we start talking about recovery, the more we can weave it into the fabric of who we are and who we want to become,” Carlough said.

SMART and SMOHIT announced they have begun evaluating more than 36,000 treatment centers across the United States for mental health and substance abuse treatment, to negotiate rates and flexibility in how members can pay for treatment. Of those, 16 treatment centers in the United States have met the qualifications for SMART’s list.

Physical health on the job site is still very much a concern, and guest speakers, including representatives from event sponsor Milwaukee Tool, presented innovations in PPE, including a partnership with CPWR on new head protection, pass-through safety vests to prevent falls and accessory-accepting hard hats (no duct tape needed).

Ketcham, from OSHA’s Directorate of Construction, presented regulatory activities as well as the ongoing update of directives, including a new excavation directive; a small, unmanned aerial system (drone) directive; and the update of the crane directive for operator certification. He also addressed COVID and how it could possibly change OSHA regulations in the future.

“There are a lot of lessons learned,” he said. “We’ll probably be talking about lessons learned as a society and an agency for many years.”

Galoozis, from F.E. Moran, kicked off the second day of the conference with a presentation of the best-practices plan for COVID-19 performed by F.E. Moran early in the pandemic. From there, Ragain opened up the main session, “Issues Impacting the Future of Safety and Health.”

For decades, safety was determined by how many mistakes humans made, because they chose to ignore the rules or performed a risky task that caused an incident. Ragain proposed safety should be seen as a “dynamic non-event, not the absence of incident but the presence of maximum effort,” he said. “It’s people who can bring stability to this otherwise complex world. We need to engage people, from one moment to the next, so they’re responding.”

Workers of all ages are uniquely capable and need to be enabled. Workers over the age of 55 may lack physical abilities, but they can provide the experience necessary to make informed decisions. According to CPWR, there is a higher incident rate for workers ages 25 and younger, but the injury severity rate is highest in those ages 55 and older.

By age 40, 38% of the construction industry has experienced an injury that caused them to miss work.

“The strengths and weaknesses — the good news is they complement each other. The biggest barrier we have to this collaboration — and I’ve seen it a hundred times — is stereotypes,” Ragain said. “They prevent us from wanting to collaborate, and if we were to collaborate, we would do better.”

During the second day’s breakout sessions, participants discussed how to leverage the experience of the older workforce to improve culture around safety and health. Main points that came from those discussions included establishing older workers as mentors by creating formal mentor programs; celebrating experience milestones; intentionally pairing older and younger workers; teaching older workers how to mentor; making safety a part of career development; and engaging older workers to lead safety topics based on their own experience.

Older workers can learn a lot from the work/life balance younger workers set out to create, and younger workers can learn from older workers’ experiences.

“We need to create an atmosphere where workers are looking out for one another,” Ragain said.

After the discussion, Ernest from NIOSH updated attendees on the organization’s Construction Safety and Health Program as well as the prevention of falls and struck-by injuries, the leading cause of death of construction workers, he said. He did not shy away from the toll COVID-19 took on the construction industry as a whole, but a small silver lining could be the spotlight the pandemic put on safety and health.

“It’s been a huge issue for the industry, and it’s not going to completely go away,” Ernest said. “Each year, there could be issues we deal with in regard to this disease.”

Originally presented to the 2015 Safety Champions Conference, the Safety Climate-Safety Management Information System (SC-SMIS) was demonstrated by Goldenhar of CPWR. The online tool will be able to aid contractors in planning a safety assessment and then creating action plans and tracking steps. Development of the online tool will be finished this summer, and Goldenhar hopes to recruit small- to medium-size companies to participate in a 12-month pilot program beginning in August-September.

“This is such a great tool that can be used, and I’m sure companies big or small can tailor it to their needs,” Goldenhar said. “I think the pilot test is a fantastic opportunity for any of our contractors out there.”

To bookend the conference, Beyer revisited safety in regard to mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention.

“It takes a village, and we’re doing it person by person in our industry,” Beyer said. “For years, I was trying to educate people on suicide, and I was afraid to use the ‘s’ word at work. But I realized it sounded clinical. Suicide can be prevented, but it can only be prevented if we talk about it.”

One of the first ways is to change how suicide is referred — instead of “committed suicide,” it should be “died by suicide.” Changing the words takes away the blame and makes it a mental health issue.

“We need to treat mental health like physical health. We don’t say someone committed cancer. Or committed a broken leg,” Beyer said. “You can’t have good physical health without good mental health and vice versa. This industry has an invisible crisis.”

According to Mental Health First Aid, a mental health course that teaches how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders, the average delay between onset of mental illness symptoms and treatment is 11 years.

“We need to take down the barriers of seeking care and teach them how to access care. Then, encourage it,” Beyer said. “Programs like SMART MAP are your biggest tools.”

Talking about mental health “has gotten better,” said Randy Young, a conference participant from Local 104 in San Francisco, “but it has a long way to go.”

“In Denver, we had two apprentices take their lives in the last three years,” said John Eckler. “So, we are aware and talking.”

“I used to believe that suicide was a weakness,” added Rick DiLoli. “My son, a psychologist, was able to open my eyes to it — it is just people trying to deal with unbearable pain without methods of coping.”

Beyer was impressed with the level of education and advocacy, largely created by SMART’s commitment to mental health awareness.

“Your comments reflect excellent commitment and awareness to mental health and well-being. Many of you have been well trained by SMART MAP,” Beyer said. “It was so exciting to see your comments and how important we all know this topic is. Thank you for the honor of joining you and presenting today.”

Although virtually held, the 2021 Safety Champions Conference seemed to reach members where they were.

“This is the first safety conference I have attended. The information I received was outstanding,” said Ron Shenberger from Local 9 in Colorado. “The speakers were very informative. I look forward to bringing information to my fellow members.”

Jointly sponsored by the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation (SMART) workers and the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association (SMACNA), the Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) was founded in 1986 to address the impact of decades-long asbestos exposure on those working in the sheet metal industry. To date, tens of thousands of union sheet metal workers have been screened as part of its ongoing Job Hazards Screening program (formerly Asbestos Screening).

SMOHIT has since expanded its mission to operate on four separate but related tracks: monitor and document the health of union sheet metal workers related to workplace exposures and hazards; provide safety information and training to promote best practices on and off the job; advocate for the physical, mental and emotional health and safety of SMART and SMACNA members with government and through likeminded allied organizations; and provide diet, exercise and other lifestyle information to address the health and wellness of union members and contractors.

For more information on SMOHIT, visit smohit.org or call 703-739-7130.

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