SMOHIT Safety Champions Conference helps members stay safe

The fourth annual Sheet Metal Occupational Health Institute Trust (SMOHIT) Safety Champions Conference, held Feb. 24-26 at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel and Resort in Tempe, Arizona, was best seen as a continuation of the safety culture themes introduced at the 2018 Conference. The idea was to expand the scope of the subject matter and to create an environment in which attendee input and engagement set the tone for the event.

The conference kicked off on Sunday evening with a meet and greet reception, followed by an awards ceremony in which eight honorees from across the nation received recognition for safety programs, safety cultures and acts of workplace heroism.

In his Monday morning opening remarks, SMART (Sheet Metal Air, Rail and Transportation)  General President Joseph Sellers praised SMOHIT for doing “a yeoman’s job with SMART MAP (Members’ Assistance Program) and its other initiatives to keep members safe, healthy and productive,” before issuing a challenge to those in the room. “Let’s make sure we all pitch in. There are a lot of things we as an industry can do better.”

Tom Soles, SMACNA (Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors’ National Association) executive director of member services and market sectors, echoed Sellers’ sentiments.

“This is a creative time in our industry, with safety apps and virtual reality training,” he said. “Our goal is for safety to become part of our collective DNA, not an add-on. That’s what this conference is all about — the opportunity to share our experiences and add continual improvement to the work we do in our daily lives.”

Mike McCullion, SMACNA director of safety and health, reminded the participants of the importance of the information learned and the roles they play in the industry.

“You never know, something you say to someone or an initiative you take could save a person’s life,” he said.

Once again, Phil Ragain, director of research and development for the RAD Group in Conroe, Texas, served as keynote speaker and trainer for the 73 training coordinators, SMACNA contractors, SMOHIT trustees, SMART journeypersons, apprentices and others in attendance. Ragain gained the audience’s attention by asking the thought-provoking questions, “How do we get people engaged? How do we get them to speak up?”

From there, he revisited last year’s overview of safety culture leadership and the five dimensions of a mature culture — Just Culture, Engaged Culture, Flexible Culture, Reporting Culture, Informed Culture — before introducing an all-important sixth dimension:  Learning Culture, in which people and organizations are continuously improving. In this dimension, people at all levels are willing to make changes — both major and minor — in light of what happened in the past and what is expected in the future. In a learning culture, people don’t just check off boxes and take tests. Rather, they adapt to situations proactively, which means using the lessons learned to forecast, anticipate and prepare for future eventualities.

The real work on day one took place at the afternoon breakout sessions, in which attendees separated into small groups to discuss such important topics as “Generational Safety – From Millennials to Baby Boomers” and “Safety Considerations Relative to Employer Size and the Type of Work Conducted.” After detailed discussions on both topics, group leaders delivered summary reports to all attendees. Significant differences between generations included the degree of openness to new technology, readiness to speak one’s mind, and risk tolerance. Ragain summed up that portion of the program by saying, “Millennials are the best thing to happen to safety because of their willingness to speak up.”

The day two “open space” sessions took on an even more personal quality, as the topics were chosen by the participants themselves. These wide-ranging themes emerged from the previous day’s brainstorms and covered challenges such as drug and alcohol abuse; the dangers of compressed and unrealistic schedules; the lack of skilled labor; silica, asbestos and fiberglass damage; and mental health issues.

Participants in the silica, asbestos and fiberglass session, spanning age ranges from baby boomers to millennials, agreed that the “safety ethic is as important as the work ethic,” and needs to start at the top. Those discussing compressed and unrealistic schedules identified it as a reason for increased injuries and “MacGyver-style fixes,” saying a lack of workplace adaptation would lead to a “race to the bottom.”

After thorough explorations of these topics, Ragain left the participants with ongoing homework assignments addressing next steps. These included listing at least two specific things they would do to improve safety in light of generational difference in their workforce, as well as at least two things they would do to improve safety in reference to their organizations’ size and type of work performed.

During a break, International Training Institute (ITI) field representative Aldo Zambetti briefed the audience on the wealth of safety resources available through SMOHIT, along with new educational initiatives available at local sheet metal training centers, including active shooter preparedness and the importance of safety in the emerging field of nanotechnology, which he described as “the new asbestos.”

Later in the day, Chris Carlough, director of education for SMART, wrapped up the conference by reminding attendees that despite major advances, the construction trades still lead all occupations in suicide rate, while holding the number two spot in substance abuse issues.

“We’ve accomplished a lot,” he said. “But it always feels like we’re just getting started.”

SMOHIT was founded in 1986 to address the impact of decades-long asbestos exposure on those working in the sheet metal industry. To date, more than 55,000 sheet metal workers have been screened as part of its ongoing Asbestos Screening Program.

SMOHIT has since expanded its mission to operate on four separate but related tracks: monitoring and documenting the health of sheet metal workers as it relates to workplace exposures and hazards; providing safety information and training related to best safety practices on and off the job; acting as an aggressive advocate for the health and safety of its members with government and through likeminded allied organizations; and providing diet and exercise information to address the health and wellness of its members.

SMOHIT has adjusted its methods and messages to reflect feedback from local unions and the industry, and to address new safety challenges as they arise. The organization works directly with the ITI to provide training programs for the unionized sheet metal industry.

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