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#30: Hardcore one-on-one safety stuff

July 17, 2019 | 26 minutes 43 seconds

Live from the University of Notre Dame! Jill connects with the trailblazing Eric Kloss, Director of Risk Management and Safety, who is leading the University’s effort to become the nation’s only higher education institution to enter OSHA’s Voluntary Protection Program (VPP). They talk about ND’s Safety Summit, a campus-wide kick-off event related to the VPP pursuit, the magnetism and impact of event speaker Charlie Morecraft, and Eric’s professional journey (he always wanted to be and eventually did become, a firefighter). You’ll learn about the benefits of real leadership training and rotational internships.

Transcript

Jill:

This is a special edition of the Accidental Safety Pro, recorded live at the University of Notre Dame's 2019 Safety Summit. As always, the Accidental Safety Pro is brought to you by Vivid Learning Systems and the Health and Safety Institute. My name is Jill James, Vivid's Chief Safety Officer and your podcast host.

My guest today is Eric, the Director of Risk Management and Safety at the University of Notre Dame. Welcome to the show, Eric.

Eric:

Well, thank you, Jill. Thanks for having me.

Jill:

Yeah, you're welcome. So we should probably tell our audience why did the Accidental Safety Pro come all the way to Notre Dame? And it's because you had a pretty special kickoff event yesterday on campus, which is ... Now, when we say yesterday and people are listening to this, it's a sort of the beginning of May and students are getting ready. They're finishing up their finals week, they're packing up to go home. And you had this safety summit for your faculty and staff yesterday, so you can, can you tell the audience what that was about?

Eric:

Yeah, so yesterday we had two events on campus. Mostly for our staff. All Faculty and staff were invited. And some students that work in labs. This is all about the safety of the personnel working on campus and what they're doing. But the most important thing that we were trying to do is get a message across that they should be looking out for themselves and their partners when they're out there working.

So we had two special speakers here on campus, one from Indiana OSHA and Indiana Department of Labor to introduce at the university starting to pursue volunteer protection program. So we're in the very, very early stages of doing that. But that was really nice to kind of get that message out. And then more importantly, we were bringing in Charlie Morecraft to talk to everybody and share his story with us.

And I know you did a podcast with Charlie ...

Jill:

I did.

Eric:

... Before this. And his message is really, really good and it resonated with our staff. He was able to connect really well with our folks that do the jobs out in the university. So it was nice to not only have them hear the message from VPP standpoint but also listen to Charlie, and then Charlie was answering some questions. So we had two sessions here yesterday and they shared their message. And the students that were there from the researchers I heard enjoyed it. But definitely the staff that came really enjoyed Charlie's message.

Jill:

I've been hearing the same. It was pretty fun after he had spoken to just watch the people's eyes light up with just an awakening to safety, if you will. And talk about how his message had impacted them or how they might change what they do and messages to bring back to their families. And as you and I walked across campus with him yesterday, people kept talking with him, and he really touches a nerve and a heart I think that turns on an awareness for safety that people didn't otherwise maybe have or was laying dormant in them somehow. And he brought it back to life.

Eric:

He surely does. And the timing was nice, because we've been rolling out safety here on campus for the last few years and it's been really taken hold maybe 18 months now. So the timing of Charlie coming in with the VPP effort and Indiana OSHA was really, really good. And I know a number of people have already mentioned that to me that the message was timely.

Jill:

Yeah. And it's pretty special as you're embarking on this VPP process that you're the first university or college in the United States to ever try it. And so this is a big deal. You're carving a path that hopefully other universities and colleges will follow and hopefully it leads to a good place for you. But it's pretty remarkable and congratulations on being the first to give it a go.

Eric:

Well, thank you. It's definitely not me. It's the leadership here at the university. We have some really wonderful people that work in the faculty and staff and it's the support of everybody. And I have an awesome team that kind of pulls us all together. I'm just lucky I'm kind of ... Be able to talk about it.

Jill:

Yeah. Well thank you for having us here. Really appreciate it.

Eric:

You're welcome and thanks for coming.

Jill:

Oh yeah. So Eric, this podcast, the Accidental Safety Pro, is where we focus on safety professionals being able to tell their story of how they got into safety because they're all unique and interesting stories. So interested to hear what's yours. Were you a little kid and when people asked you what you want to be when you grow up, you said a safety professional?

Eric:

Yeah, no.

Jill:

Right? Me, either.

Eric:

I didn't know what that was, right?

Jill:

Right.

Eric:

I still to this day tell people what I do, that I'm a safety professional, they kind of get that deer in a headlight look. What's that mean, right? So no, I didn't want to be a safety professional, even know about it when I was a kid growing up, I want to be a firefighter. So that's kind of sort of how I got into it. When I went to my first college degree at right out of high school ... So I took a degree that had nothing to do with safety or nothing to do with firefighting, finished that degree. But at that time I was a firefighter, I was a volunteer. So did the whole nine yards. EMT. Moved up into the ranks.

Jill:

What was that first degree?

Eric:

It was a bachelor of science in political science. Wanted to do the lawyer thing and that whole whole road. Funny how when I graduated I was still doing the firefighting and I did not want to go on to pursue my law degree. So I went out and started working. I worked in social work at that time. And, amazingly enough, I met my wife, my now wife at that time. We were dating and I said to her, I'm like "Hey, I just want to do something different." And I started looking at some jobs and I said, "Oh, there's a safety job. I'm a firefighter and I can do this." And it's funny, she looked at me and says, "No, you should probably have a degree to go do this." I said, "Really?" I said, "The school I went to didn't have anything," and she said, "Well I got my nursing degree from IUP and the nursing department's in the same building as a safety department."

Jill:

Oh, she actually knew more about it than you did.

Eric:

She knew way more about it than I did. I didn't know anything about it. And so she said, "Hey, why don't you look into it?" And so I did and it was pretty interesting. I was working at the time and we were planning our wedding. We got married and we went on our honeymoon. And during our honeymoon we went down to the school, down to that IUP campus. And I talked to the chairperson about the program.

So I said, "Hey, this sounds like something I really want to do." And so that fall, my wife and I then moved down to that area and she got a job. She changed work for me so I could go back to school. And I went back to school.

Jill:

So you went to her Alma Mater.

Eric:

Went to her Alma Mater. And got my safety degree.

Jill:

So when you were going to first start pursuing that, what did you think safety was? Like what was in your head? I mean you loved being a firefighter. Did you think that's what the job was? Or kind of what did you think it might be?

Eric:

I didn't know. So when she told me about it, I did some research and looked at it and I kind of understood the okay safety professionals they usually work in a high hazard type risky industry. They try to keep people safe. That's kind of all I knew. Okay, they dealt with regulatory stuff. Never in the world that I know that it's going to branch out into environmental, industrial hygiene, health, worker's comp. It just kind of explodes.

Didn't know. So that's why you go to school. So I went to school. The school I went to was fantastic. They did a great job. It's interesting, when I was talking to the chair, because I already had an undergrad. And I'm like, "Hey, I can come back and get my Masters." He said, "Oh yeah, you can definitely do that, but really kind of recommend you do your undergrad and get a second undergrad, as you'll learn more, you'll get the base information, where if you go to the graduate program you'll get more of the high level theory." And I'm like, "Oh, that's an interesting concept." And it was going to be about the same amount of time. So I'm like, I think what he said made sense. So I ended up getting the second undergrad, a bachelor's of science this time in safety sciences. And then later I did go on to get my masters, but that was the best move I made. Not going right into the Master's program, taking the undergrad to get the core fundamental courses. So you really kind of understand going on.

Jill:

Yeah, the science of it. I mean I suppose that's really true. You had a political science degree to start with. When I went into my Master's program, I had a community health education degree and they allowed in a certain number of non-engineering degrees to the program that I went into. And so yeah, I was in a class with people who had a lot more science and engineering in their background and I came in with a community health background, which was beneficial in a different way, but it wasn't the same as the other students who had a different piece.

Eric:

Right. Right. And I was older at the time. So they considered me a nontraditional student, which I think definitely helped as well. Not that I didn't ... I did pretty well in my undergrad, first undergrad. But this one, it felt so much easier.

Jill:

You knew what to expect and you were focused.

Eric:

I knew what to expect. I'd kind of been through it once and now was there to buckle down and do what I wanted to do and not worry so much about the school life.

Jill:

Yup. So what did that first job look like? Or did you start with an internship or what happened after grad school?

Eric:

After I graduated from my first degree? Or from the first underground or ... ?

Jill:

Yeah. What happened with your safety career?

Eric:

Well. So the way this program worked, we did internships, so we ended up working in, I think it was four different interns in one semester I had to go do.

Jill:

Oh, wow, that's great.

Eric:

Yeah, it was like two, maybe it was like three or four weeks for each of them, something like that. I don't remember exactly. We had to write a report on each of them. They were incredible. I still have them to this day. There were like 120 pages long for each of them. It was just an amazing amount of work. But you learn so much doing that type of work.

Well, the one day I'll sit in the, it was right after classes. I'm sitting in the library in the department, and the Chair comes in and says, "Hey, are you interested in doing a summer intern at a chemical company up in Niagara Falls?" And I'm like, "Heck yeah." Heck yeah. And I said, "It's going to be paid or unpaid?" "Going to be paid." I said, "Oh, even better."

Jill:

Even better. Yeah. Because not a lot of internships back when you and I went to school at a similar time were paid.

Eric:

Right. So this was this just after I did those four that I talked about and those were not paid because they were part of the course, coursework. So this was more of this company trying to get safety professionals into the door and kind of see whether or not they'll kind of fit in that culture and want to bring them on board. So I'm like, "Oh yeah, I'll do that."

So I had an opportunity to go up there and not only work in their corporate offices, but I was working at a large chemical plant that made chlorine. And then I went down to their main corporate offices in Dallas and did some projects over the summer. And so it was really nice. It was really cool. And when I was done with that, before I even walked out the door, they basically offered me a position. So it's is funny, I was talking to the Director of Safety down there, the main in in Dallas, and he says to me, he's like, "Well, how much more coursework do you have?" And I said, "I have a couple courses I need to take, I'll be done in the Christmas time." He said, "Well, let me see what I can do to just get you to do those remotely or ... "

Jill:

Oh wow.

Eric:

Yeah. So he attempted it, but it didn't work out. I had to go back to campus and finish a couple of classes. But it was nice because I knew that semester I had a job and I was able to start work finals week that last semester and I was up in Niagara Falls working.

Jill:

You went right to it.

Eric:

Right to it. I actually was able to cut out a couple of my last finals as I was doing pretty good in the class and they said, "Yeah, just go to work,"

Jill:

Oh, wow. Congratulations. That's pretty remarkable.

Eric:

Yeah, it was really cool.

Jill:

So then you made a physical geographic move, you and your wife?

Eric:

Yeah. Well you made, oh gosh. There's all kinds of moves we made. So moving from our hometown down to school, IEP. We did that. And there was actually a couple of moves in there because of her job, we had to find her, she was a nurse, so we had to find work for her. And then we physically moved then and back up to Buffalo.

Jill:

So what was next on your journey? How long did you stay with the chemical plant?

Eric:

I was with those guys. I was with them for two different locations in that area, and I think it was five or six years total. A wonderful company. They really knew what they were doing. They had great programs, learned all the base stuff that I ever needed to learn.

Jill:

Did you have a safety mentor while you were there? Or were you the ...

Eric:

No, no, no. I was part of a team. The first plant I was at was small, so maybe 150 people or something. And there's my boss and myself, but he was excellent and taught me a lot. And then I went to the bigger plant and then there's a team of five or six of us. So to say it was a one on one mentoring. No. But working around some really, really solid professionals that kind of brought me on board. But coming into it, the education I got was outstanding and I was able to pick up that stuff pretty readily.

Jill:

What sort of things were you working on and that first job? What kind of responsibilities did they give you?

Eric:

My very first job out of school, I was doing two major things, emergency response and industrial hygiene.

Jill:

Oh, so you could lean into that firefighting background a little bit.

Eric:

Yep. And the emergency response stuff that I was responsible for was hazmat. So I had to build a hazardous materials response team, from the ground up actually. So it's pretty cool. They sent me out to a two week training course in Colorado. So I was doing that and IH, and got some great mentorship from our corporate group in industrial hygiene. So they came in and kind of really walked the company's process and how you do exposure assessments and take samples and make sure you've got the right chain of custody and how you document it and do the tracking and trending and develop a sampling schedule. So that was really, really good. On top of the nuts and bolts safety stuff. So your day to day you'd have to go out in the factory and kind of talk with people and work with them on other programs. Then after that, then I worked at, I went to the bigger plant. And that was this hardcore one-on-one safety stuff. Confined space, lock out, that type of stuff.

Jill:

Yeah. So where did the path lead next?

Eric:

I worked at a research lab. Did that for a couple of years. It was with a really big company. And then I was able to move up within that company to other locations. I had to physically relocate and went to their corporate offices on the east coast. And so I worked in loss prevention in that area. So companies like FM Global, that type of group. And then from there I went back into a product center, I would call them, or a business unit and managed a really large facility.

So from the corporate offices I was able to move to another product center or business unit and manage a pretty large heavy manufacturing, I'm going to call it a quasi-chemical plant. They use a lot of chemistry to make the end product. So pretty hazardous plant. We had a lot of stuff going on. A complex operation. Learned, learned a lot there. Just learned a ton of safety stuff.

Then from there spent maybe a decade or so with that. Did manage a number of different plants on top of that really big ones. So I think there was like four or five in the products that I was responsible for. And then from there I came to University of Notre Dame.

Jill:

Wow. And you've been here how long?

Eric:

I've been here six years. I started off as a associate director in lab. In our laboratory safety processes. And then thankfully enough, I was able to move into the director role a few years ago.

Jill:

So when, in this path that you were just explaining, it sounds like you became a piece of management at one of them and you had some people that you were, that you were supervising. Did I get that right?

Eric:

That's correct.

Jill:

Yeah. So what was that like for you, going from being mentored to being the mentor?

Eric:

Well, it's exciting. I really love working and watching safety professionals kind of move up in their careers. I tell this to a lot of the new folks that I work with that a lot of the people that I've worked with and had the fortunate ability to see them kind of grow up in their careers are now either above me or they're just ... I had nothing to do with it. It's them. But kind of watching that process is pretty cool. And it's really them doing all the work and them taking the initiative. And I think our job as leaders is to kind of point them in the right direction and help give them the information to be successful.

Jill:

Yeah. When it comes to safety and those of us who get the opportunity to mentor people, whether it's someone that's outside of where we're working or where we're working, leadership and having some leadership training is helpful. If I remember right, have you had some specific management leadership training as well?

Eric:

Yeah, part of one of the companies I worked with, they sent all of us through those type of leadership trainings. Part of just being there, you had to take those types of courses. And they're very beneficial.

Jill:

How did it change the way you approached your work?

Eric:

I don't know. It kind of opens your eyes to different ways of doing things and how to respond to people.

Jill:

Yeah. Yeah. So you said you had started out, one of your first jobs before you went into safety was in social work. Do you find yourself sort of leaning into some of that in what you did at that time with the way that you interact with employees in your safety career as you've progressed?

Eric:

Not so much. I was working with handicap folks. So not so much.

Jill:

Yeah, hadn't crossed over.

Eric:

No.

Jill:

Yeah, I mean it sounds like you really started out with an intention to be in a helping profession, if you will. And I often think safety is a lot of science, but it's also having a heart for humanity as well. So it seemed like a good match.

Eric:

Yeah. As I think our main role as safety people is to keep people safe. And we you want them to go home the same way they came in.

Jill:

Yeah. Right, right. So what's your favorite part of safety? What's the thing that's sort of your groove? Like the thing that you really like? Because you've experienced so much now with doing safety engineering work and a lot of IH work. And you mentioned some stuff with workers' compensation and environmental or getting in front of audiences or ... What's your favorite thing?

Eric:

So I really enjoy processes and building systems. That's just something I enjoy. Early on in my career I loved industrial hygiene. I loved the nuts and bolts of safety. But now that I've had a chance to kind of do all these things and these buckets, now it's cool to kind of put the roof on the house and kind of see the whole, how all of it kind of works together and meshes together and how you can build that whole system.

Eric:

Start from the whole, the beginning of it, we have the risk assessments to developing those controls and then doing the checks on it. So the plan, do, check, act cycle, that's kind of where I like to kind of get into it now.

Jill:

Yeah. So maybe for people who aren't ... Who are listening who aren't necessarily familiar about what a college campus is like by way of different types of exposures. It's not just everybody at a desk.

Eric:

Oh, no.

Jill:

You have like your own little city here.

Eric:

Yes, we do.

Jill:

Yeah. So can you explain what some of those departments or risks might be like so people who are listening who aren't from universities and colleges can kind of hear about the depth and breadth of what it is that you and your team are doing.

Eric:

Yeah, you name it, we have it. When you look at the awesome work that our researchers are doing, it's everything from you work with radioactive materials, you work with lasers, they work with chemistry type stuff. And then there's a physical hazards, like a lot of engineering folks. But then when you look at the operational side of the university, have we have a power plant, we have the standard maintenance organizations that they kind of get into everything. We have our own landscaping services, we have a, for lack of better term, a food factory. So they produce all the food and we have our dining halls. So that's a lot of different diverse stuff going on here. Not to mention we got the landscaping, the athletics. So you can name it, we kind of have it.

Jill:

Yeah. Do you have your own police department on campus, as well?

Eric:

We have our own police and fire.

Jill:

Yeah.

Eric:

Police and fire department.

Jill:

And then you have the addition of bringing in all kinds of people who aren't employees on campus for events. And is that something that your department overseas as well in some regard?

Eric:

In some regard. It mostly falls on the police and fire element of it when they have the bigger events. We might help out a little bit, but it mostly relies on those guys. But they do a great job. Both of those chiefs are just fantastic.

Jill:

Yeah. Right. So some people who work on campuses in safety do some academic work as well. Is that also part of your life?

Eric:

No. Nope. Not here. Not here. I have worked for another University [inaudible] courses. Not for Notre Dame.

Jill:

Yeah. Right. And so tell us about how safety spills over into your personal life. You have a family.

Eric:

Yes.

Jill:

Yeah. What does safety look like as the safety dad?

Eric:

Yeah. I don't know.

Jill:

Should we ask you, we should have maybe had your kids on, right?

Eric:

Yeah, right. Right. So I don't know. Yeah, I'm not sure. When I do stuff around the house, I'm definitely conscious of it. If I'm cutting the grass, I'm wearing hearing protection, that type of stuff. And if my daughter or my wife is doing it, I'll, "Hey. Don't use sandals." So I wouldn't say that I'm overboard on it in any stretch of the imagination, but it's definitely part of my life. Just probably just like you, if you're driving down the street and you'll see something then I'll point it out. Say, "Hey, did you see? Look at that."

Jill:

Yeah, yeah. Right. And everybody in the car who is with you is like, "God, can you turn that off please? Please turn that button off." You're like, "I can't un-see it. It's there." Yeah. Oh, funny. So when you are trying to inform yourself or teach yourself something new, because we know that our job of learning safety is never done. There's always something for us to learn. Where do you usually go, network wise? Do you have people that you go to, specific sources that you go to? How does that work for you?

Eric:

Mostly a network. If I have a technical question or something, which we all do, something will come across our desk and we're like, "That's new." Or, "I'm not sure about this one." And I find it so easy, is I, thankfully I know a lot of talented safety professionals that I can just send them a note and say, "Hey, I just ran across this case or this incident or this scenario. How would you handle it? How would you deal with it?" And sometimes I'll send it to two or three people at once and then we'll all kind of ping off each other. Give different advice. And that's really helpful. If it's something really odd or awkward, every now and then we get something like that. That none of us know about, then I'll do a little more looking out for hiring a consultant or doing some research on my own.

Jill:

Right. And I imagine that happens quite a bit in a setting like this where you're doing ... People are doing research and it can be groundbreaking things, or someone's asking about nanotechnology and maybe that's not something that you've done before. So you've got to figure it out.

Eric:

Yep. That's one of those, nanotechnology would be one of those that I don't know much about that I have to learn and teach myself and learn.

Jill:

Yeah. Reach to your resources.

Eric:

Yep. Well even my resources I know, I don't think they would know about those.

Jill:

I know. I've done some of that research myself and it's hard to find people who are really studying that right now.

Eric:

Yeah, because most of the folks I know are industrial base type.

Jill:

Right. Well, I think this is fascinating and I think the work that you do here is to be lauded. And you have so many bodies that you're in charge of, of their safety and sending them home, like you said, every day. How many faculty and staff do you have on campus?

Eric:

Oh, I think it's like between six and 8,000, in that range.

Jill:

Yeah. And then add in students.

Eric:

Yeah. And that's another 10 or 12. Something like that. Don't quote me on the numbers.

Jill:

Yeah. That's still quite a number of people here.

Eric:

Yeah. But ultimately it's about people, making sure they're safe. And the wonderful folks that work here, again, in my department and our peers are just fantastic people.

Jill:

Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you for the work that you do, Eric.

Eric:

Oh, you're welcome.

Jill:

Appreciate it. And thanks for sharing your story today and thanks for letting us be part of this journey that you're on.

Eric:

You're welcome. Anytime you want to come back, please come back.

Jill:

I will. It's beautiful here.

Eric:

Thank you.

Jill:

And thank you all so much for joining in and listening today and thank you for the work that you all do to make sure your workers, including your temporary workers, make it home safe every day. Special thanks to Will Moss, our podcast producer. You can listen to all of our episodes at vividlearningsystems.com or subscribe in the podcast player of your choosing. And you can also find us on YouTube. If you have a suggestion for a guest, including if it's yourself, please contact me at social@vividlearningsystems.com.

Until next time, thanks for listening.