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A seat at the table

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown C-suite leaders the value of safety professionals

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Photo: mixetto/iStockphoto

‘No barrier’

For some safety pros, collaborating with the C-suite throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different than other times.

“We’ve always been active participants with the C-suite and executives,” said Theresa Ciatto, director of safety at Primus Builders Inc., a designer and builder of cold storage facilities in the United States and Canada. “There’s really no barrier.”

Having “open-door” access to the C-suite has allowed Ciatto to ensure everything workers needed to stay safe has been made available.

“We’re trying to stay on the forefront of having access to equipment, PPE, cleaning supplies,” she said. “It was very difficult at the beginning. Having the understanding that it was going to cost more, they were willing to put forth that effort and that cost. There really weren’t any issues.”

When questions about COVID-19 were prevalent throughout the nation’s workplaces early last year, Brian Gawlik took advantage of his relationship with the C-suite at M. A. Mortenson Co.

“We always have a voice,” said Gawlik, who is the construction company’s safety manager.

On daily 30-minute phone calls, Gawlik was among an estimated 200 people from his office discussing the lat-est safety-related issues. The result provided team members, from the foreman level and up, with the latest in-formation and guidance on hand sanitizer, facemasks, physical distancing, carpooling and contractors.

If hand sanitizer, COVID-19-related posters or other items for a jobsite were needed, Gawlik said safety came first.

“It was never a question of, ‘Why are you doing this?’” he said. “It was, ‘OK, let’s go get that.’ We always feel like safety is never, ever questioned.”

The challenge now for safety pros is to remain front and center with C-suite executives and the general public. Maintaining that presence in the C-suite must be the goal, as well.

‘It starts at the top’

Twice during his career, John Fenton has served as a safety director. Today, he’s the CEO of Patriot Rail & Ports.

During the early days of the pandemic, Fenton sat down with his safety director to strategize. Those meetings offered a lesson on the value of getting safety pros involved early on.

“We sat down on a Monday and he and I and a few other folks talked about what we needed to do,” Fenton said. “We put together a very comprehensive plan in three days. We thought we were way ahead of the game.

“By Friday, we fully implemented it, had shut down our offices and the world changed dramatically.”

As an essential service, Patriot Rail & Ports relied on its safety culture to oversee workplace sanitization and physical distancing protocol, along with finding and procuring cleaning supplies and PPE.

“It was a whole team effort, but it was orchestrated by the safety team,” Fenton said. “They coordinated it. I was so thankful for what we had.”

Building a strong safety culture that benefits an organization during a crisis can’t be done overnight or with a flip of a switch, Fenton says.

“It starts way before an event and it starts at the top,” he said. “You’ve got to understand the rigor and the dis-cipline it takes. But it starts with, ‘Do you really care about people?’ Everything we do is through people.

“You can’t delegate it. You have to be genuine. You have to do the right things. Period. Sometimes it costs money. Those are all investments in your people. You can’t just all of a sudden turn it on and say, ‘Gee, we’re going to have a great safety culture.’”

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