What does it mean to be a safety leader? Is it taking up a specific cause, getting involved with safety organizations or advocating safe practices both on the job site and at home? For Jeremy Bethancourt, LeBlanc Building Co. director of health, safety and training, it's all three.

ASSE will honor Bethancourt at Safety 2017, which will be held June 19-22 in Denver. 

In an interview with EHS Today, Bethancourt explains what receiving the award means to him as well as what safety measures EHS managers can take to protect workers from heat exposure, falls and distracted driving.

How did you get involved in a safety role? Can you please give readers a little bit of your background.

As far as I can remember I had always felt a calling to serve the people of my community in a law enforcement capacity. As I continued in my education, I realized that Occupational Safety & Health is law enforcement because prevents the “law from being broken” in a sense by enforcing safety in the workplace. Caring for people is not a job, it is a calling. As my grandfather told me after he died, in a post death letter to his grandsons, “Each [person] in this world impacts all others. We are like a pebble thrown into the water. We should always consider what we do and how it impacts others.” By serving others, I ensure the impact from my pebbles create waves that help as many people as possible even if those I do help do not see or even understand the full benefits.

Why is safety so important to you?

It is important because it impacts the world in a positive way by serving people instead of taking away from people. Safety is a great equalizer because all of us are at risk regardless of our sociological status, race, religion, etc. As I tell my workers during training, safety matters to all of us because we all squish the same… Unlike hyperbole to the contrary, all regulation is not an evil. After all, it is “a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another…; Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political…” Thomas Jefferson.

Safety is the great equalizer! No matter who you are or what your place in society, every person can be injured equally and can all lose our lives with equal brevity.

What does winning this award mean to you?

I am thrilled to be honored with the ASSE SPY, but it is more than that to me. It is similar to when I was recognized with the inaugural Triangle Award. Being recognized in such a public way means that we will be able to help even more people and society at large because the recognition brings focus to the issues which we continue to work on. Since receiving the Triangle Award in 2013, the company I work with has had nine more workers whose falls were arrested after they lost their balance and subsequently fell off a roof. That’s nine more people who went home and got to be with their families… and we are not the only company who keeps having those successes. We have heard of several companies in my state who have experienced similar incidents.

However, what’s unacceptably tragic, is that in spite of all we have done to demonstrate the practical and economic feasibility of providing fall protection to workers, we have also heard and know of incidents where workers have fallen to their deaths in Arizona because those workers were not provided or supervised to follow or use proper fall protection according to best practices and OSHA standards…

If by my recognition we can help prevent tragedies like that from occurring, then I am happy to serve in the capacity I am. If by my recognition I can help bring attention to an issue which can be improved upon then I am pleased to do so…

What three things do safety managers need to know about distracted driving?

You know that answer has at least as much to do with driving as it has to do with every aspect of our lives. As safety managers we focus on the workplace. What many either do not know or simply forget is that workers are a whole person. They cannot just shut off their propensity to think of things other than the task we give them at the workplace. Driving a vehicle is no different.

One thing I would want to be made clear, is that distracted driving on or off the job from anyone impacts the workplace and all our workers. Do not be fooled by believing that distracted driving at work is separate than distracted driving off the job. Peoples behaviors off the job impact their behavior on the job and those whose job might put them in proximity to a distracted driver. If we can positively impact the behavior of our workers in a way that they understand that we care about them off the job as much as when they are working for us then we will be able to eventually modify their behavior and the behavior of others.

People need to understand they are accountable for their actions where those actions can harm another. Distracted driving is an epidemic which we must address head on.

Most importantly, there is no one solution. The three things we emphasis with Drive Smart Arizona is Education - Engage - Enforce. Educate the public on the dangers and how they can and must change their behavior, Engage with everyone who is impacted or could be impacted by distracted driving, including children who can be a great influence on modifying parents bad behavior on the road, and Enforce by reaching out with community leaders on ways our drivers might be compelled to improve when education and engagement do not cause improvement.

What safety failures do you see most often when it comes to fall protection? Please describe your work with OSHA as a member of their advisory committee.

I do see failures a lot when in the field. Most of them come from a lack of understanding the limits of the systems. I think the best analogy is to compare the use of a seat belt in the car. If we put on the seatbelt and then put the shoulder strap behind us then we have just defeated the function and intent the seatbelt was designed to provide. Fall protection systems are the same. I see a lot of folks using PFAS but they do not seem to understand and are not forced by their employer to learn the correct way to use it. They are sent out with “compliance in a can” systems without any knowledge or understanding if it is the correct tool for the job. After all, fall protection is no less important than any other tool on the job.

I often tell my workers and company managers: we do not have these systems because we expect everything to go right, we have them so that if something unexpected occurs or if a worker makes a mistake while working hard for us, it does not cost them their life. To imply that fall protection systems are onerous and are not needed because it is better to stop a fall than to arrest a fall is immoral hyperbole. To me such comments are as obtuse as someone saying baby seats in a car are not needed because everyone on the road is going to be careful and always follow the rules…

Now that summer is here, what policies or measures can safety managers take to protect workers from heat stress?

Not to use a cliché, but Water – Rest – Shade … it really is that simple.

As a safety manager and framer by trade, I know exactly what it’s like to work out in the heat and humidity through the Arizona summer. As an organization, we have implemented several policies and practices which have enabled us to reduce and even eliminate heat related illnesses. Keep in mind, no one thing keeps workers safe, it is a combination of actions. Some of those actions we took are:

  • Providing hydration/sports drinks to all workers from April to October
  • Daily/weekly weather monitoring and alerting management and crews of excessive heat warnings.
  • Not forcing a full shift on excessive heat days. In fact on some days we force short days in order to keep workers safe from excessive heat.
  • Allowing workers to start at first light whenever municipalities do not prohibit such safer work times
  • Training all workers to be aware of the signs of heat stress
  • Providing cool off area to all workers, including the ability to sit in company vehicles with air running
  • During the hot times of the year, we monitor and strongly advise workers on the use of caffeinated drinks on our job sites.

Most of those policies seem like common-sense but as we know common-sense is not common, it is learned. By focusing on the Water Rest Shade approach developed by Cal-OSHA we have been, and hopefully will continue to, eliminate all heat related illness with our workers…

What advice do you have for EHS/safety managers?

I would have to say, seek out the truth and be persistent. Do not give in to the difficulties and do not allow rhetoric to become alternate facts as to what is the correct course of action. As one of our Nation’s greatest President, Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”

Do not allow the axiom “that no good deed goes unpunished”, stop you from doing what’s right…

It is not always easy to be a safety manager for an organization, in fact many times it is extremely difficult.

Focus on the truth and not rhetoric. Don’t get caught up in people whose approach is “safe enough” or “being careful” where workers can still be seriously injured. Safety is not a perception about the “best way” or “risk management”, safety is about everyone making it home at the end of the day and treating every worker, every person as if they were your own father, mother, son, or daughter in order to do so.