2021 CEOs Who 'Get It'
John E. Eschenberg
President and CEO
Washington River Protection Solutions LLC
- John provides top-down and side-by-side leadership on all safety-related fronts. He embodies the practice of leadership by example, and expects employees to incorporate sound safety and health principles at work, at home and in the community.
- He embodies the principles of strong safety culture by speaking to employee groups and routinely recognizing worker efforts and contributions.
- John asked for an independent safety culture evaluation near the end of a significant contract period to ensure an effective transition to a new contractor.
Washington River Protection Solutions, an Amentum-led company with more than 3,000 employees, is committed to the safe and efficient management, retrieval and treatment of 56 million gallons of radioactive and hazardous waste stored in 177 underground storage tanks at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Hanford site. The Hanford site in one of the largest nuclear cleanup projects in North America
Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”
At an early age, I learned the value of safety in the workplace through my own personal work experiences and by observing the consequences of unsafe actions by others. When I was just out of high school, I took a job in the building and construction industry. It was my first real exposure to the workplace and, without any training, I had no real sense or appreciation for a safe work environment underpinned by solid work practices.
My inexperience resulted in a number of unforgettable safety lessons that indelibly shaped not only my personal behaviors but helped form who I am as a company leader. Over the course of about a year on that job, I recall four specific events, each sending me home in worse condition than when I arrived for work that morning. I was shocked while working on an unsecured electrical circuit. I suffered an injury when a piece of metal became embedded in my eye while drilling on an I-beam, resulting in a trip to the emergency room. I tipped over (forward, thankfully) an overloaded forklift while unloading lumber. Lastly, I had to make an emergency visit to the dentist after being hit in the mouth with a wooden beam. I will never forget the pain and discomfort of having 11 teeth wired back into place.
At that point, while sitting on the ridgeline of an asphalt-shingled roof in the middle of a sweltering South Carolina summer, I decided that I would go to college. As a student, I worked nights and weekends in a university’s hospital radiology department as an X-ray technician, working in the emergency room and supporting the surgical suite. That experience brought me face to face with severely injured patients who arrived at the one of the state’s Level I trauma centers with life-threatening injuries. Some of these were victims of industrial accidents that resulted from falls from significant height, a collapsed trench, rotating equipment and just basic industrial events. These injuries left some with broken bones and others with a life-long disability. A few, unfortunately, died. Once again, I had experienced a front-row seat to the consequences of industrial hazards, much of it stemming from either a lack of safety focus by the employer or an employee’s failure to follow established procedures, including looking out for co-workers.
It was not until I became associated with the Navy’s nuclear program that I developed a full understanding of the rigor and discipline necessary to ensure worker safety in high-hazard operating environments. It started when I was a co-op employee at the Charleston Naval Shipyard. While there, I completed a nuclear apprentice training program. Later, I worked outside the shipyard directly for the Naval Sea Systems Command, where I spent time on submarines and nuclear-related support installations. That experience introduced me to the true meaning of safety in the workplace and raised my standards to a high level that I have maintained throughout my career.
Now, nearly 30 years after those initial experiences, I have come to realize how they served to fortify not only my personal commitment to keep workers safe, but also to guide a necessary level of conservative decision-making in almost every aspect of my professional life.
Why is safety a core value at your organization?
WRPS manages 56 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste in decades-old underground storage tanks while working to rebuild much of the site’s aging infrastructure. Safety is a core value at WRPS because we are not just managing a project – we are managing significant risks to our workers, the public and the environment, including the nearby Columbia River.
At our site, safety is of the highest importance and the right thing to do, but, for us, it’s really who we are and what we stand for. Our commitment to safety represents the foundation to build trust, create a robust safety culture, motivate employees, empower engagement, seek innovative ideas, promote healthy habits, and improve retention and hiring of employees.
We realize the heartbeat of our company resides in each employee. That’s why, like other successful companies in high-hazard industrial environments, we strive to make safety our way of life. When our employees arrive at work, their family and I expect them to return home in the same condition as they left. Safety is integrated into our entire work planning and implementation framework.
We manage risks within a complex set of requirements while upgrading an aged infrastructure, working to meet ambitious Washington state consent-decree milestones for single-shell tank waste retrieval and preparing to feed high-level radioactive waste to the Waste Treatment and Immobilization Plant, now under construction.
The Voluntary Protection Program and Integrated Environmental and Safety Management System are central to our way of doing business. Continuous improvement in processes, human behaviors and capabilities is necessary to ensure the health of WRPS workers. Our continuous improvement process touches all areas of the company to drive efficiency and improvements that reduce Hanford risks.
What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?
In carrying out our mission successfully, we face many obstacles. One of the most pressing challenges is preparing to return to full 24/7 operations in order to support the environmental cleanup mission needs at the Hanford site. Following shutdown of its plutonium production reactors, the Hanford site has not operated in a production mode for several decades. The site is now preparing to resume around-the-clock operations to process radioactive waste into a safe, stable glass form.
This transition will require a significant cultural shift centered on disciplined operations and a high-performing, safety-centered environment. This change must accommodate the coming shift to a workforce comprising new, less-experienced workers hired as a result of company growth and as more of our older workers begin to retire.
I think one obstacle that we all face is complacency. It is insidious and often not immediately recognized as our workers engage in routine or repetitive tasks that can become second nature, with little conscious thought given to safety hazards. We perform many high-hazard operations each week with each activity having been planned for long periods of time. Employees are specially trained for these tasks, in some cases including the use of full-scale mock-up training environments. We always execute those high-hazard work activities safely, as opposed to routine tasks where we tend to experience more unsafe incidents.
Finally, we must continue to hold each other accountable for safe behaviors, overcoming the natural hesitation to challenge a co-worker when they are unsafe or taking risks.
How do you instill a sense of safety in employees on an ongoing basis?
Our highly skilled WRPS workforce is dedicated to the protection of each other and the environment. We believe that all accidents are preventable. Each worker embraces responsibility for stop-work authority in pursuit of our Zero Accident policy. The workforce is trained to provide excellent hazard recognition and problem-solving skills, and safety is integrated into every aspect of the mission.
WRPS and subcontractor employees are provided with many formal and informal opportunities to participate in and influence our safety focus. Employee Accident Prevention Councils are committed to looking out for worker safety across the tank farms and promote worker engagement, safety, awareness, feedback and management involvement. Several targeted proactive initiatives and campaigns address high-risk factors or areas needing emphasis. These include Walking is Working, Speak Up – Listen Up, 360 Plus Vehicle and a safe driving focus, Beat the Heat and many others.
We encourage employees to become involved in on-the-job safety and provide multiple options to do so. Employee Accident Prevention Councils allow participants to discuss accomplishments, safety issues, opportunities for improvement, recent trends, and new and existing safety programs. These committees involve workers across different projects and functions, which allows for additional institutional learning and sharing. Additionally, these committees provide our leadership team with valuable feedback, updates and recommendations, which serve as building blocks for new initiatives or focus areas.
Other means of sharing and discussing safety among workers are plan-of-day meetings, weekly safety startup messages, pre-job briefings, all-employee messages, company newsletters and the WRPS website.
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?
WRPS uses standard industry performance metrics to track and trend recordable injuries, days away or restricted cases, and first aid cases on a monthly basis. These are lagging indicators, but a few other metrics and data provide upfront insight, including employee participation rates in safety committees, results from internal and external audits and surveillance, independent surveys, and feedback from our bargaining units and our customer – the Department of Energy.
In 2019, WRPS set a record for the lowest overall radiation exposures in the history of the WRPS Tank Operations Contract. The company is consistently among the lowest in the DOE complex when it comes to individual radiation doses and cumulative exposures.
Nowhere has the project’s commitment to safe operations been more evident than in efforts to advance worker protection from chemical vapors. A decades-old issue, tank vapors have been front and center as an employee concern during WRPS tenure as the Hanford Tank Operations Contractor. Over the past five years, through focused emphasis and commitment by management and workers, WRPS has made significant strides in improving how the risks associated with Hanford Tank vapors are understood and addressed.
There is always room for improvement in everything we do. I drive increased emphasis on finding more ways to eliminate hazards at the top tier of our Hierarchy of Controls. Reducing hazards can reduce injuries and save lives. As managers, we must 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 at the work front. 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 management’s commitment and support for their safety.
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?
The on-the-job safety attitude and culture of our workforce is reflected in our households and communities away from work. Before any meeting begins at work, one of the attendees shares a safety story or topic. Stories typically involve an unsafe condition witnessed or experienced which, in many cases, helps others avoid similar mistakes.
Over the years, I have heard many of these stories, and I am certain that an employee speaking up likely saved a family member or neighbor from serious injury. I think of Clark W. Griswold, the Hollywood movie character, putting up holiday lights in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” While we cringe at his many unsafe practices, I have 100% confidence that, if our employee were Clark’s neighbor, they would have tried to stop his hazardous actions, offered to help or provided a better solution.
Beyond safety, away from work, many employees volunteer in the community to help others in need. Examples include cleanup at a home or business, helping at a local food bank, or supporting crisis programs that provide an essential service to protect people. Assisting with community needs is more important than ever with today’s unprecedented challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. I appreciate the work of our incredible team and remain committed to lead by example.
What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?
In the restrictive and personally challenging era of COVID-19, attention to mental health and well-being is more important than ever. It is particularly needed in an environment like ours, where employees work amid hazardous conditions and daily decisions and work tasks can directly impact their health and safety.
In addition to the pandemic, over the past year our workforce has faced other uncertainties, including an operating contract extension, a change in corporate ownership, wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a volatile political landscape, and cascading changes to home and work environments. Given all of these distractions, our workforce, in particular the frontline managers, have done an extraordinary job of keeping people focused and working safely – both in the workplace and in their home settings.
Good communications lies at the heart of our efforts to support employee mental health and well-being. Keeping employees informed every step of the way helps ease uncertainty, reduce fatigue and build trust.
Our employee safety committees conduct stretch and flex exercises each day and conduct monthly safety walk-downs. Other initiatives include a robust Speak Up – Listen Up program that empowers workers to recognize and thank an employee for a job well done, or to notify them of a possible safety issue. This initiative also reinforces every worker’s right to stop work if an unsafe act or condition is discovered. In welcoming new hires to the company, I set expectations for safety, make sure they know their rights, how to become involved in the safety program and who to contact for support.
We are also developing a program called “Mission Health and Ready” to help place additional emphasis on healthy habits and choices involving rest and sleep, stress management, eating right, hydration, and many other factors. Healthy habits complete my vision of creating a safe work environment for employees in everything we do.