2019 CEOs Who "Get It"

2019 CEOs Who Get it

Kenneth J. Rueter

President and CEO
UCOR, an AECOM-led partnership with Jacobs
Oak Ridge, TN


  • Personal mantra repeatedly communicated is “Safety First – Every Task, Every Activity, Every Time.”
  • Promotes employee engagement through his presence at regularly scheduled meetings with local union safety advocates, stewards and officials.
  • Keeps employees apprised of work status, future plans and potential emerging issues.
  • Understands the value of employee wellness programs and actively engages in company and community wellness bicycling and running events.


UCOR is an AECOM-led partnership of Jacobs and a small business partner, RSI EnTech. The company manages the cleanup of the 2,200-acre East Tennessee Technology Park for its client, the Department of Energy. The site was contaminated with radioactive, hazardous and industrial wastes generated by more than 40 years of national defense and energy missions. UCOR also is performing cleanup work at excess contaminated federal facilities at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, TN. UCOR employs 1,900 workers.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.” What experiences or lessons brought you to where you are today?

Throughout my career, safety has been personal for me. When I was 19, I worked at an industrial site where I had an experience that made an indelible impression about the importance of a safe work environment. I was hit in the face and eyes by a caustic fluid leaking from some overhead piping. Luckily, there was a safety shower nearby, and I was able to wash much of the fluid out of my eyes and airway. They took me to the hospital for further observation. I will never forget the sound of my mother’s audible gasp when the doctor delivered the news that there was a chance I would lose my sight. Fortunately, I didn’t lose my sight, but that experience left me with two thoughts: 1.) I was thankful that the company I worked for had the foresight to have safety showers for accidents, and 2.) the accident could have been prevented with a stronger safety culture that employed an integrated safety system. It’s one thing to address an accident when it happens, but quite another to have the right standards, procedures and engineering in place to prevent the accident in the first place. Throughout my career, I have stressed the importance of an integrated safety management system that takes a holistic look at safety and strives to make all accidents preventable.

Later, I worked at a plant where a boiler exploded. It turned out that people in the control room saw an issue developing that led to the explosion but didn’t stop work. If they had, they would have prevented the explosion and the injuries and equipment damage that resulted.

I later found myself in a similar situation, and I did stop work. I lost my job. That’s why today I appreciate the importance of any worker being able to stop work without fear of retribution. As a leader, I expect and insist on any member of our workforce to be able to stop work immediately if they see something is unsafe.

Over time, safety becomes part of your DNA. It means being a safe employee at work and carrying that safety consciousness home every single day. We regularly tell our employees that our goal is for you to go home each day in the same condition in which you came to work in the morning. That is our mantra. It is our way of reminding employees to stay alert; keep your focus on the task at hand; don’t be careless; and fight hard against ambiguity, complacency and lack of situational awareness.

I have seen firsthand the disastrous effects an industrial injury or accident can have on a worker and his or her family. Something as simple as a fall on a concrete sidewalk can cause long-lasting health issues. More serious accidents – especially in the hazardous environment we work in – can have even greater consequences. To me, nothing is more important than safety. My mantra is never make profit at the expense of the client or our people – and, most importantly, never at the expense of safety.

I personally take responsibility for initiating several key avenues of communications to enhance safety awareness. One is the President’s Accident Prevention Council. Membership comprises United Steelworkers [safety and health] representatives, Knoxville Building and Construction Trades Council safety advocates, Atomic Trades and Labor Council safety advocates, key UCOR managers and subcontractors, Local Safety Improvement Team members, union leads, and additional key personnel. The council meets monthly to review safety performance, address safety and health issues, and share project and industry lessons with the potential for safety impacts. Status on goals and actions to implement are also addressed at this forum.

I also serve on the board of directors of the national Center for Construction Research and Training, also known as CPWR, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to construction safety and health research and training, and currently serves as NIOSH’s National Construction Center. If we are going to lead on safety, I believe it is important to have an industry voice. CPWR works to reduce or eliminate occupational safety and health hazards faced by construction workers through safety and health research and the development of a broad array of training programs.

As CEO, I believe all of these activities are time well spent. They are a high priority on my schedule. I have focused on making organizations I am associated with investment-worthy learning organizations. If we perform safely and bring in projects on time and under budget, we are investment-worthy. Day-to-day work also provides ample opportunity to identify lessons learned. I insist that our project leaders take the time to identify those lessons and incorporate improvements to make our workplaces even safer.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

UCOR is an AECOM-led partnership of Jacobs and our small business partner, RSI EnTech. We are responsible for cleaning up the East Tennessee Technology Park in Oak Ridge, former home of the Oak Ridge Gaseous Diffusion Plant. This is a massive cleanup project – the largest in the DOE complex – and safety is paramount to its success.

As a former uranium enrichment plant site, the East Tennessee Technology Park presents many formidable cleanup challenges. Buildings planned for demolition are laced with radioactive materials, and years of unregulated waste disposal practices have polluted the soil and groundwater. The extent of contamination was not fully known, and the unsafe, deteriorated condition of many of the structures forced many delays in demolition.

That’s why, at UCOR, our policy is “Safety First.” Period. We do not push schedules, cut corners or save money at the expense of employee safety. All employees are encouraged and expected to have a questioning attitude and stop work if they feel a job cannot be done safely or the environment is threatened. We believe that all accidents are preventable. We want every employee to go home at the end of the day in the same condition as they came to work.


What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?

Most of the obstacles we face are focused in three main areas: ambiguity, complacency and lack of situational awareness.

When a leader is ambiguous, those who follow him lack certainty. They are not sure of parameters and limits. In the absence of firm rules, they are left to make their own. The result: inconsistency, chaos and unintended – sometimes tragic – outcomes.

The same is true with complacency. Complacency leaves us in a comfortable place, oblivious to threats and hazards. Our guard is down, and the chance for accident is up.

A caring safety culture helps guard against complacency. Not only are employees encouraged and empowered to protect their own safety, but they also willingly share responsibility for the safety of their co-workers. It all stems from a management commitment to ensure every employee goes home each day in the same, safe condition they came to work.

Situational awareness means keeping your “antenna” up and tuned in to changing conditions. Changing conditions can be anything from the weather or an extended holiday break to contamination levels or structural decline in an aging facility.

We spend a lot of time talking about these three obstacles to safety and keeping them top of mind with every employee. Almost every accident that occurs can be linked back to one of these three issues.


How do you instill a sense of safety in employees on an ongoing basis?

At UCOR, our success is built on a culture of excellence. It is that culture that drives our performance and our commitment to safety. Our expectation is that each employee goes home in the same condition in which he or she came to work. Our goal is zero injuries.

At UCOR, safety is the responsibility of every employee – it is a job requirement. Ensuring a safe workplace requires all employees to be involved and to take appropriate actions to protect themselves and their fellow workers.

The ultimate credit for UCOR’s strong safety culture is a direct result of the involvement of employees, who implement new and innovative ways to incorporate safety elements in their daily activities, both at work and at home. They also look out for each other on the job.

A critical element of our program is the employee’s right to stop work without fear of reprisal if a safety issue or concern is identified. Line management has the responsibility and obligation to resolve concerns brought forth by personnel before proceeding with work tasks. Whether you call it a safety pause, a stand-down or something else, the point is to take a few minutes to refocus – to recommit to safe operations at every level of the company.

Every UCOR meeting begins with a safety share – helping to keep safety top of mind. This provides the opportunity for workers to communicate safety-related experiences.

Every year in January, all UCOR team members (including managers and craft) are encouraged to write a personal safety plan, considering how they can support the “zero accident” philosophy at work and at home.

Every major project organization in UCOR sponsors a Local Safety Improvement Team. These teams are built around employee involvement and work to increase the visibility of safety issues and provide value-added feedback to employees and management.

UCOR also has more than 230 safety-trained supervisors on staff. The certification provides a means for individuals and employers to verify safety and health knowledge important for first-line supervisors, managers and any person with safety responsibilities. Workplace safety is enhanced when employees increase their knowledge of basic safety and health practices.

We also take full advantage of state-of-the art technology. The use of drones, mobile devices and apps, wearable technologies, [radio-frequency identification] technologies, environmental monitoring, personal protection equipment/tool advancements, and virtual reality training are examples of available technologies that can yield positive measurable results. For instance, UCOR has begun using a proximity alert device, called MyZone, that alerts workers through vibrations when they are getting too close to a piece of moving equipment.

Finally, as managers, we walk the talk. Modeling safe acts in all that we do illustrates our commitment to safety. Something as simple as consistently conducting a 360-degree inspection of our vehicles or using a crosswalk models safe behavior and serves as an illustration of our commitment to safety. An important element for reinforcing the value of a strong safety culture is the presence of management in the field. There is no substitute for having management see for themselves how a questioning attitude and individual worker commitment to safety can affect performance of our mission. Workers should never doubt our commitment and our support for their safety.


How does your organization measure safety? What are the leading indicators that show you how safe your organization is, and where do you see room for improvement?

We rely on all the standard industry metrics to measure the effectiveness of our safety program. We are proud of the fact that, by two important measures, UCOR had its best safety performance ever in fiscal year 2018, with rates well below the Department of Energy goals for total recordable cases and days away restricted or transferred.

UCOR’s total recordable case rate was 0.58, below the DOE goal of 1.0. The days away restricted or transferred rate was 0.23, well below the DOE goal of 0.5. These averages are the lowest during the entire seven years of our contract and significantly below what is normally experienced in our industry. This kind of record makes us one of the safest sites in the entire DOE complex.

We are also a Department of Energy Voluntary Protection Program Star site, which recognizes UCOR as one of the safest worksites in America. UCOR will host the DOE VPP Evaluation Team for an onsite reassessment review in June. Our preparation for the visit brings many opportunities to assess and improve our safety culture, programs and performance.

Our safety program has also received other industry recognition. UCOR received the 2016 Medgate (now Cority) Environmental Health and Safety Impact Award and has been recognized as a Tennessee Healthier Workplace.

Another measure involves independent, third-party assessments that give us a reality check on how we’re doing. An independent evaluation of UCOR’s safety culture was conducted by Oak Ridge Associated Universities to identify strengths and weaknesses, and help focus future safety-related improvement initiatives.

Data collection methods included a written survey, focus groups and management interviews. A total of 588 employees – or more than 50 percent of the UCOR workforce – participated in the written survey. More than 100 people participated in the focus groups and interviews.

The study conclusion: The UCOR safety culture has a solid foundation based on a high degree of personal accountability, firm management support and a strong questioning attitude. As a learning organization, we also rely on self-identifying safety trends, addressing them and sharing lessons learned throughout our organization and beyond.


What role does off-the-job safety play in your organization’s overall safety program? What types of off-the-job safety and health programs does your organization offer to employees?

Safety is a lifestyle – a way of living and doing work. It needs to be second nature – ingrained in every employee – so safe actions are the norm, not the exception. That means safety awareness does not end at the plant gate – it must be part of our life at home too.

Just as each employee prepares a personal safety action plan at the beginning of each year, we encourage employees to prepare a similar family safety plan at home. We ask them to think through all the things they do at home that pose safety hazards – from working on a ladder to heavy lifting to taking preventive measures to protect against fire hazards, exposure to household chemicals and the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Each season also brings safety challenges – heat stress in the summer, slick leaves in the fall and icy sidewalks in the winter. Keeping safe at home is a constant topic of concern for our employees. Every employee receives a quarterly issue of Family Safety & Health magazine, which contains in-depth articles and reminders about safety hazards.

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