SMOHIT Honors Professionals Aiming To Make the Industry Safe For Apprentices, Journeymen

Published: February 5, 2015

smohitSafety 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 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.

Doctors David Hinkamp and Laura Welch are physicians who partner with SMOHIT to keep workers in good medical condition, while the staff at Sheet Metal Local 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 Local 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 SMOHIT Administrator Randy Krocka. “These awards shine a light on the excellent work to create a safety culture and the people—from those educating our members to the medical professionals conducting screenings—who go above and beyond to make sure that happens.”

Nominees 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 ten weeks out of the year to bring screening services to locals throughout the country, so they don’t have to rely on a clinic.

Members should be screened every five years. Through 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 regardless of where [members] 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 are aware of the importance of these health tools. This is an important program many other organizations have let drop, but it’s the one 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 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% of sheet metal workers over age 55 had scarring on their lungs from asbestos exposure. Today, less than 3% of sheet metal workers younger than 60 have scarring, Welch said. This is because workers have been educated to say “no” if contractors want them to perform work that would expose them to asbestos. Educating contractors and workers has been an ongoing effort that’s paying off. 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 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 are 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 28 in New York and for Obie Torres, safety instructor for Local 67 in Austin, Texas, teaching safety starts at the beginning when workers are apprentices. Local 28 expanded its OSHA program and made sure all 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, Local 28 training coordinator. “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 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 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 that our safety culture is growing and that it’s come a long way.

“It is members 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 www.smohit.org or call 703-739-7130.