2021 CEOs Who "Get It"

2021 CEOs Who 'Get It'

December 18, 2020
2021 CEOs Who

Safety depends on leaders who understand and support it from the top down, ensuring every major business decision is made with safety in mind. That is the definition of a CEO who gets it.

The eight honorees recognized this year are leaders with decades of experience. These individuals hail from multiple industries and are passionate about safety and the impact it has on their employees, their organizations and their communities. They set bold goals, focus on continuous improvement and deliver strong results, recognizing that safety never stops.

In moving safety beyond compliance, CEOs who “get it” are able to address the myriad safety challenges present in organizations in which risk comes in many different forms. When Jeff Owens pushed for a Live Safety/Beyond Zero culture at Advanced Technology Services, the goal was to encourage all employees to “make safety a way of life, in and out of the workplace.” Meanwhile, Keryn James, ERM CEO, has focused on improving both leading and lagging metrics to sustain a high level of safety performance.

CEOs who “get it” lead by example, like Stephen Sandherr, CEO of Associated General Contractors of America, who uses his voice to promote safety beyond the walls of his organization, raising public awareness around high-risk areas such as work zones.

As leaders, they take time to listen to employee concerns and connect on topics that go beyond physical safety, paying attention to concerns around psychological safety as well as mental health issues. With the health and safety of employees and their families as a “North Star,” these leaders drive the evolution of their organizational safety culture.

Mark Vergnano, CEO of The Chemours Co., set an aggressive goal of improving Chemours’ safety performance by 75% by going deeper to create a companywide “safety obsession” mindset. Phil Breidenbach, president and project manager at Savannah River Remediation, has built a foundation of trust through a personal approach of making sure all employees are on the safety journey.

By using every tool at their disposal, such as promising technology, these leaders are able to address workplace safety performance, including driver safety behavior. For example, John E. Eschenberg, president and CEO of Washington River Protection Solutions, and Jeremy Kucera, president of Duro Electric, invested in safety practices and training for every employee on Day One. Each leader may have his or her own credo and leadership style, but all, like Mike Choutka, president and CEO of Hensel Phelps, believe that “working safely is the most important thing we do.”

Every worker in America deserves a CEO who gets it, and these eight individuals not only inspire their own employees, colleagues and other industry leaders, they help people live their fullest lives, from the workplace to anyplace.

The National Safety Council congratulates the 2021 honorees.

Browse individual CEO profiles by clicking on a photo below or by pressing the navigation buttons at the top of each page.

  • Phil BreidenbachIPhil Breidenbach
  • Mike ChoutkaMike Choutka
  • John E. EschenbergJohn E. Eschenberg
  • Keryn JamesKeryn James
  • Jeremy KuceraJeremy Kucera
  • Jeff OwensJeff Owens
  • Stephen SandherrStephen Sandherr
  • Mark VergnanoMark Vergnano


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CEOs Who "Get It" through the years

Browse CEO picks from the class of 2015 through the present.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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Phil Breidenbach

SRR President
Savannah River Remediation
Aiken, SC


  • Like everything, safety comes first. Phil made the priorities clear: safety of employees, safety of facilities and stopping/slowing the spread of the COVID virus. He’s been successful in making the site of SRR statistically safer than “outside the plant.”
  • Each week, he pens personal messages to employees with safety topics, current events and project updates.
  • Since the pandemic began, he has shared 10 transparent video messages, updating the team on the COVID-19 Response Plan, workforce/staffing status, and providing calls to action in fighting against the virus. He has contacted employees to check on them, asking how he can help them.

Savannah River Remediation’s mission is to eliminate the most significant environmental hazard in South Carolina. Its 2,600 employees do that by taking a hazardous, radioactive liquid waste stream – which is stored in 43 1.3-million-gallon operational underground tanks – and converting it into two safe, solid forms that can be disposed of and will be stable in the environment for 10,000 years.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

Who we are as a people, organization and company is described by the values we espouse. These values describe “how” we will conduct our work. When things get messy and the direction is not clear, it is these values that shine a bright light in the direction we should go. The core values can change slightly based on the company and organizational needs, but I have found they don’t change much or often. For high-hazard nuclear work, this is the set that I have come to rely on, and it is what we have in place at SRR:

Every company, even the bad ones, has a set of values. They have a poster on the wall – and that’s all it is. We must work every day to make these more than a poster on the wall, more than words on a page. We need to work to get these values into our hearts and minds so that they guide our behaviors when times get tough and the path is unclear. These are simple words, but they tell a lot about who we are and who we want to be. They form the foundation on which everything we do is built.

Sometimes I get asked what things I think are important to success. I always answer with the five vowels:

A is for attitude. It comes first, and it is probably the most important. When is the last time you saw a person who you thought was successful who had a negative attitude? I can’t name one. All of the people who I consider successful are almost always positive, looking forward, constantly trying to improve and excited about the future. Lou Holtz, a very successful college football coach, put it this way: “Ability is what you’re capable of doing; motivation determines what you do; attitude determines how well you do it.”

E is for effort. This is the one nobody likes. Anything worthwhile takes effort – sometimes a lot of effort. Sometimes it requires you to get up earlier than you wish and to work at it longer than you want. I believe this is true in all aspects of your life – personal and professional. And there will always be people who tell you that you’re trying too hard, that it’s not worth it. You should listen, but never forget, only you can decide. They aren’t you. Mark Twain put it this way: “The dictionary is the only place where success comes before work.”

I is for integrity. In his book (and video) called “The Last Lecture,” Randy Pausch said it best: “If you allow me to give you three words of advice, they would be, ‘Tell the truth.’ If you let me give you three more, they would be ‘all the time.’” Tell the truth, all the time. It sounds so simple – something you learn from your parents and is reinforced in grade school. Yet it is so hard to do, all the time. As a mentor once told me, when you make a mistake, the best thing to say is, “I’m sorry. I’ve learned from it, and I will try hard to never make that mistake again.” Better than to just say the words is to really mean it, to live it.

O is for ownership. Don’t go through life being a renter. Have you ever noticed when you rent something, you don’t treat it exactly the same way as when you own it? It’s that way with me – if I rent a car, I don’t wash it. I don’t clean it out. I don’t park it places where I won’t get door dings. At work, we need to act as if we own the site, not like we are renting it. If something is dirty at work, think of it as if it were in your living room. If something doesn’t work, think of it as being in your house, in your kitchen. Find something at work – large or small – and own it. Make it yours!

U is for you! In the end, your success is all up to you. Others can help, but they won’t do it for you. It takes a positive attitude, effort, integrity and ownership. The good news is everyone can do those things. Everyone can be successful, but it is up to each of us as individuals. It is up to you.

What, how and why … I think these are critically important to our success as a company and individual success as a leader.

Every individual needs to know “what” needs to be done today. “What” needs to be coordinated. If we are playing football and the linemen think it’s a passing play and the receivers think it’s a running play, then we aren’t going to get very far. Everyone needs to know “what” we are trying to accomplish and “what” they need to do for the team to succeed. People don’t automatically know “what” – someone needs to guide them. We do a lot of things to make sure everyone knows “what” we are trying to do. Schedules show “what” we are trying to do and when we are trying to do it. We conduct pre-job briefings where we talk about “what” we are going to do. We have staff meetings, integration meetings and plan-of-the-week meetings – all trying to make sure everyone knows “what” we are trying to accomplish.

But we all need to know more than just “what.” We also need to know “how.” In this case, “how” relates to the standards of performance. We need to know “how” work is conducted here, in this company, at our site. That could be very different than “how” work was conducted at the last place we worked. I was in a critique one time related to our response to a small, candle-sized fire that happened on a job. The worker simply tapped out the fire with his glove and finished the job. We all agreed that the job should have stopped, and the fire should have been reported. When I asked the worker why he didn’t stop and report, he said, “If I had stopped for something like this on my last job, I would have been fired on the spot.” The worker had worked for us for only two months. People don’t know “how” automatically. It must be explained and reinforced. “How” to do work is described by our values and expectations. As a leader, if you are not satisfied with “how” work is being conducted, you will likely find the root cause by looking in the mirror. Always remember that standards of performance will never be higher than those you are willing to accept.

“What” and “how” are important, but they are not enough by themselves. People also need to know “why.” “Why” is what motivates you. It is what gets you out of bed in the morning. It is what gets you up after you get knocked down. It is what helps you remember “what” and “how.” At SRR, we get to do something special – something of national importance. We are eliminating the highest environmental risk in the state of South Carolina. We make the world safer. We make the world cleaner. What we do is special. Not everybody gets to do something so important. Like the “what” and “how,” people don’t automatically know “why” what they do is important – someone needs to tell them. You’re someone! And to the people you work with, your opinion matters.

I challenge you each day to talk about what, how and why. Reinforce our values and expectations. Don’t accept things that don’t meet our standards. Constantly remind each other of the importance of our work.


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

Safety is hard in any organization because we get by with being unsafe so often. You almost never get hurt the first time you take a shortcut. You get by with it, and pretty soon it becomes a habit – a bad habit. It becomes the standard way work is done. We don’t even realize it is unsafe. Left unchecked, those bad habits will continue until one day, when everything lines up, someone gets hurt – maybe badly.

It always takes a little more effort to do a job safely. You need to do a pre-plan or have the right tools or personal protective equipment. Humans are always looking for the easiest, most efficient way to get a job done. To truly work safely, we have to not just tell people what to do and how to do it, we have to explain why that’s the right way to do it. Only when they understand why will we get the behaviors and performance that lead to exceptional safety.

We are all creatures of habit – this applies to safety also. We have to have processes in place that can help people identify and correct their bad habits and positively reinforce their good habits. This is where behavior-based safety and management field observation programs come in, and it is why they are so important.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

In the high-hazard nuclear business, you don’t get to conduct your mission unless you can do it safely.

I was born and raised on a farm. Farming is a dangerous business – next to mining, it is probably the most dangerous industry in the United States. I believe that’s because you are constantly working around heavy equipment, and you are typically working alone. We did a lot of work growing up, and I made it through without getting hurt. We didn’t have much in the way of pre-job briefings, procedures or work packages. The only oversight was my dad, and he was usually a long way away.

When I started working at the Savannah River site in the mid-1980s, I was shocked by the level of documentation, rigor and time required to do work. It didn’t make sense to me, and I actually almost quit the industry. Slowly I started to understand why it was different than what I was used to on the farm. On the farm, I could certainly hurt myself or maybe someone I was working with, but not much more than that. I could certainly start a fire and burn up a field – I might have done that once. I could put the wrong pesticide or herbicide on a field and cause a serious problem. But I’d have a hard time affecting the state or the country. I’m not sure I could affect the farming industry as a whole on my little farm in South Dakota.

In the nuclear business, we can. If we don’t do the work correctly, we can affect many people, large areas of the state and the entire nuclear industry. Think about Chernobyl or Fukushima. Because the consequence can be so significant, the controls to ensure we don’t actually experience those consequence need to be so robust. That’s why we use engineered controls, plan the work, comply with procedures, etc.

That is why in our business, safety is a value. More than a priority, because priorities change. It is a value and it always will be.


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

Constantly talking about safety is important, but it is not enough. Training people how to work safely is necessary, but it is insufficient by itself. To me, the key is holding people accountable.

Most people equate accountability with discipline. I believe that when accountability is done right, discipline is a very small piece of accountability. And if it were done perfectly, discipline would never be necessary.

The way I like to think about accountability is that it comes in three types: positive reinforcement, correction and discipline.

Positive reinforcement is a type of accountability. When you find someone doing the right things in the right way, you should hold them accountable. We can do that in many ways: by thanking them, taking them to lunch or giving them some kind of reward. The only thing we shouldn’t do is ignore it, because if we do, those good behaviors will disappear over time.

Sometimes people don’t do what we want them to do or in the way we want them to do it. Sometimes people don’t meet our expectations. It is not normally on purpose – no one intentionally wants to make a mistake or disappoint someone. This is when correction, or coaching, is necessary. Correction doesn’t have to be mean. It can be done in a constructive manner. It is part of being a team. If we don’t correct behaviors that don’t meet expectations, they will continue or get worse over time. This is how individuals and companies fail.

If we don’t do positive reinforcement and correction well, performance will degrade, and we will be left with discipline. I’ve seen this happen. In one facility at which I worked, they were exceptional at discipline. The discipline system was rigorous, and we had an eloquent system to ensure it was done consistently and per procedure. And we exercised it frequently because there was no process for positive reinforcement or coaching – those things were almost never done. As a result, issues grew, and the only thing left was what they knew how to do well – discipline. We changed that by the time I left that facility, and I assure you, we don’t want to be where they were at the beginning. Our goal should be to do positive reinforcement and correction so well that discipline is unnecessary and it all but disappears.

The last point I’ll make is that accountability is not a management thing, it’s a people thing. It has very little to do with your level in an organization or if you are a manager or a worker. I want each of us to hold each other accountable. I want workers to hold me accountable for doing my job and for doing it in a way that is consistent with our values, expectations and standards. I would hope they expect me to do the same for them. In my mind, we are a team, and team members hold each other accountable. It is how we grow as individuals, and it is how we succeed as a company.


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?

The leading indicators that show our safety are:

  • Behavioral observations – observing both safe and at-risk behaviors, and providing coaching for at-risk behaviors
  • Management field observations – these interactions provide an opportunity for the leadership to observe work activities, coach for improvements, and thank workers for conducting activities in a disciplined manner and taking their safety and the safety of co-workers personally, 24/7
  • Safe days – recognizing our accomplishments and thanking the team for following procedures and keeping each other safe
  • Safety meeting attendance – this metric shows that personnel is actively supporting safety programs and initiatives
  • RAVE/ROAR/Catch of the Week recognition – positive reinforcement programs in place at SRR to encourage the demonstration of our values, expectations and standards
  • Safety messages – this provides us the opportunity to actively share best practices, lessons learned and general safety reminders

Leading indicators are important. They give you a chance to identify a problem while it’s small and fix it before it gets big. It is also important, though, that we look at lagging indicators. For us, those are reportable events and injury rates:

  • Occurrence Reporting and Process System reportable events
  • Injury statistics

It is important that we pay attention to both. A great analogy would be if I were trying to lose weight. I should really pay attention to the leading indicators: Am I eating healthy foods, in the right amount and getting exercise? If I do those right, I’m on the path to lose weight. But the moment of truth is when I step on the scale. Did I gain or lose weight? That’s a lagging indicator, but you’ll never know for sure until you measure it.


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 one of our company values at SRR, which supports the overall foundation of our Nuclear Safety Culture. One of the expectations under the value of “safety” is, “Take your safety and the safety of your co-workers personally – 24/7.” So, I believe that off-the-job safety is a byproduct of our on-the-job safety. It is only natural that during the course of upholding our safety values in our day-to-day work activities that this value becomes a personal value to our employees. At SRR, we start all meetings with a Nuclear Safety Culture message, and presenters are free to develop their own message. We frequently hear our employees talk about personal stories and how they apply safety in their personal lives. It is amazing to hear how the same safe behaviors and critical thinking we apply in a work environment that processes nuclear waste are applied by our employees in their personal lives and home projects. It is evident that these values are instilled in the next generation as our employees’ mentor their kids and grandkids and teach them what safety means.


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

We have recognized over the years that a safe and healthy workforce does not start and stop at the gates of our site. We have an obligation to support our employees’ ability to live a healthy lifestyle. It is a win-win when a healthy and happy employee arrives to work physically fit and with a clear and focused mind. That means they can conduct their job duties in a safe and disciplined manner.

Some of the steps we have taken to support our employees’ health and well-being include the formation of “Health Kiosks” throughout our facilities. These kiosks allow employees to treat minor ailments (headaches, sore throat, etc.) with over-the-counter medication, check their bodyweight and body mass index, and check their heart rate and blood pressure. These kiosks include self-help literature to support awareness and give employees some considerations for taking further action if improving their wellness is desired. 

We have created companywide health challenges called “The Biggest Winner” (a play off a TV network weight-loss competition), where teams are formed and support one another with health lifestyle changes to lose weight and increase their overall well-being. 

Knowing how hard our employees work and the challenges of finding time in their personal lives to be proactive with their health, we have coordinated various onsite health fairs and flu shot clinics where employees can take those needed steps in identifying health concerns and be proactive in their care. We also offer ongoing health education via “lunch and learns,” where guest speakers provide 30-minute educational sessions during lunch breaks, allowing employees to eat lunch and obtain new information on health and well-being.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are routinely checking in with our personnel who are teleworking to ensure they see/hear a friendly voice. This action provides us the opportunity to gauge the overall health and well-being of our teammates.

In addition, the benefits package we offer covers mental health services for employees and their family, and we also have an onsite employee assistance program for employees that are having any mental health issues.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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Mike Choutka

Mike Choutka

President and CEO
Hensel Phelps
Greeley, CO


  • Mike’s first priority as president and CEO: To communicate his expectations for Hensel Phelps to be the safest company in its industry.
  • He requires executives to walk their projects exclusively for safety.
  • He identified that HP wasn’t engaging the workforce and trade partner craft in safety at the same levels as salaried and management employees. As a result, he launched the Craft Awareness and Recognition in Safety (CARES) Program.
  • Mike actively monitors the safety observation program and recognizes top performers with a handwritten note and valued gift.

Founded in 1937, Hensel Phelps specializes in building development, construction and facility services in a range of markets, from aviation to government, commercial, transportation, critical facilities, health care and transportation. Hensel Phelps is one of the largest employee-owned general contractors in the United States. Hensel Phelps brings clients’ vision to life with a comprehensive approach that begins with innovative planning and extends throughout the entire life of the property. The organization has 3,905 employees.

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

I began my career with Hensel Phelps almost 30 years ago as a field engineer, working on a multi-prime aviation project. One day, I was in the field performing survey work, minding my own business. There was another contractor making a crane pick nearby that was not properly planned. The crane operator lost control of the load, which struck me at a high rate of speed. I was not severely injured, although it could have been much worse. At that early point in my career, I learned how inherently dangerous this industry can be and how important hazard analysis is in the planning process. I also learned that engineering controls were not the sole remedy to preventing all incidents. People make the difference in this industry, so a strong safety culture with high engagement is needed for a holistic approach to a zero-accident mentality.

From that moment until present day, I can honestly say getting injured on a jobsite was one of the lowest points of my career. I do not want anyone to go through that experience on a Hensel Phelps project. 


What is the biggest obstacle to safety at your organization, and how do you work to overcome it?
The construction industry faces challenges every day that create barriers for safety culture, including trade partner integration, difficult schedules, budget constraints and complex projects. Considering these obstacles, our biggest challenge is creating an uncompromising safety culture that is consistent on all of our projects and engages everyone from the moment they walk onto our project.

Our goal is to be the safest company in our industry. To achieve this goal, we start by creating a culture that engages all stakeholders. We focus on three guiding principles: visible leadership involvement, engaging all employees and trade partners, and recognizing people for the things they do well every day. For us to be successful, we need to have safety champions on each project who build relationships with our people and trade partners. We send a consistent message that safety is of the highest importance. We must all do what we say, even when the challenges of the project make it difficult.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Hensel Phelps places the highest value on the safety and health of our employees, trade partners and our communities. I truly believe that safety is the most important thing we do because we care about our people and their families. Our leadership understands that every decision made sends a message about what really matters to the organization and impacts employee behavior. For us to demonstrate that safety really is this important, we must integrate safety into everything we do, ensure the right plans and controls are in place before performing any operation, verify safe working conditions, and empower anyone to stop work when conditions change.


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

Our commitment to safety begins immediately for each new hire or trade partner when they come to our project during our orientation program. Following that, we need to be consistently messaging safety to demonstrate our commitment. It is critical that we communicate our safety philosophy and expectations, not only when an employee is first hired, but at frequent touch points. Each new day and new task begins with a safety message. We require that our people are engaged in our safety observation program to identify and correct safety concerns and unsafe behavior.

A successful safety culture needs the commitment and engagement of all stakeholders. Focusing on our guiding principle of visible leadership involvement, we mandated that executive leadership walk each of their projects for “safety only” visits. The increased focus of safety from our most senior leadership sent a clear message to all personnel that safety mattered at the highest level of the organization. We engage the owners of our trade partners by holding Executive Safety Culture Charrettes on each site to proactively talk about the safety performance of the project, set expectations and to further demonstrate the importance of safety to Hensel Phelps.

To enhance craft engagement, last year we launched our Craft Awareness and Recognition in Safety (CARES) Program. This program directly involves the craft in safety decisions and provides a forum for the CARES members to meet with project management. This program has been monumental in creating a collaborative partnership between the trades and our management. It is also furthering our safety culture on the project and across industry.
“CARES has helped change the safety culture for the better. It shows the craft their opinion matters,” remarked one of CARES team member when asked how the program has changed the safety culture on their project. We have also been encouraged to see this program being led by a trade partner craft on certain projects.


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? 

Organizations need to understand where their injuries are occurring and identify underlying trends so they can affect change. By tracking injury information and other key metrics, we can see if our efforts are making a difference regarding injury frequency and severity. It also indicates the effectiveness of our program.

Our approach was to make the data tell a story that drives change. We created dashboards for our people that incorporate both leading and lagging indicators in a visual format that is sortable by location, supervisor, activity, near misses, trade partners, vehicle accidents and cost. Our leading indicator information includes participation and trends in our observation program and 25 key performance indicators that are independently assessed using a third-party provider.

We are currently trying to improve the amount of leading indicator information available for our project teams by moving all our processes to an electronic format. The result will create a project dashboard showing the status of all safety-related items such as inspections, permits and tailgate meetings, making our people more efficient and creating safer projects.


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?

We ask our employees to bring our message of safety home to their families through our annual safety calendar coloring contest. We have found that having an annual event where our employees have conversations with their children about how they stay safe at work makes safety personal and is a powerful reminder to our people about what is really important. The children create original artwork with a safety message and the winners are featured in our annual safety calendar – given to every employee. We also use the calendar to highlight our craft team members’ contributions to safety on their project.

Another area of focus is fleet safety. We provide defensive driver training to all employees. For many of us, driving is the most dangerous thing we do every single day – whether at work or in our personal lives. We also realized that most people do not get refresher training in how to drive safely once they get a license, so it is important that we do our best to give our people skills to keep them, their families and communities safe.   


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

We recognize that the construction industry has one of the highest rates of suicide among all other industries. Additionally, many of us, or someone close to us, will experience a mental health issue during our lifetime. This topic is critically important today with the current challenges all of us are facing in our daily lives. To address the issues of mental health and suicide prevention, we launched “Culture of Care.” Culture of Care is a program that provides resources, educational information and tools to support our people and their families. We created a website for our employees with all of our mental health resources, including the employee assistance program, crisis phone numbers, tailgate topics, a mental health screening tool, posters and other educational materials.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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John E. Eschenberg

John E. Eschenberg

President and CEO
Washington River Protection Solutions LLC
Richland, WA


  • 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.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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Keryn James

Keryn James



  • Keryn has instilled a “Culture of Caring” within the organization that is driven by the five pillars of ERM’s safety program: active leadership, training and competency, emphasizing positive behaviors, risk management and maintaining balance.
  • Her focus is on improving and communicating the leading metrics that will ultimately sustain the level of safety performance attributed to an organization that cares for its extended team.
  • She personally sponsored the deployment of ERM’s initial enterprisewide Safety Culture Survey in 2019. The results of this survey continue to drive improvement efforts related to instilling a “Culture of Caring.”

ERM is a leading global environmental, health and safety and sustainability consultancy firm with about 5,000 employees in 47-plus countries. ERM works with clients in a variety of sectors, including technology, oil and gas, power, finance, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, manufacturing, and mining to address their critical EHS and sustainability challenges.

Keryn James

Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

Throughout my consulting career, I have worked on projects in many different settings, from refineries to mine sites to very remote communities in Africa and Asia. I have the privilege of leading a business that has a diverse range of services from site investigation and remediation and decommissioning to stakeholder engagement, product stewardship, due diligence, strategy and safety risk assessment. The diversity of sectors, geographies, cultures and services have exposed me to a very wide array of risks, risk tolerance, and management of health and safety.

This has helped me to understand how important it is for safety to be a “value” (rather than a process or a priority) because values are universal, no matter the culture, language or location.
ERM is a partnership model business and partners at ERM have always had the primary leadership accountability for making sure that work is done safely. As you are promoted within ERM, your responsibilities with respect to safety increase, but it is when you become a partner that you are “accountable.” When you are accountable for sending people into remote parts of Africa, a highly hazardous facility or a challenging stakeholder engagement activity, you want to be absolutely sure they will be safe, and it becomes part of the way you think about the work that we do and how we do it. It’s built into the culture of the organization.

I have worked with clients and on client facilities/projects that have demonstrated health and safety excellence, and I have been in locations where this has not been the case. In my 25-plus years, I have experienced “good” and “bad” and, in particular, I have had direct experience with the deaths of subcontractors – this loss of life never leaves you. It shapes you and changes you in ways that is very difficult to convey. The understanding that the accountability ultimately rests with me, when this happens, is something that I feel very deeply and it changes how you think and behave.


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

I think there are two things that I worry about in this regard: 1) complacency and 2) failure to manage change. In every root cause analysis that we have undertaken for incidents and near misses at ERM (and, frankly, also with our clients), some element of these two issues often comes into play. The past eight months of living in a COVID-19 world have exacerbated the change management issues in my view. We are tackling the change management dimension by reviewing processes and other factors, but the most important action is increasing the level of engagement with our leaders and teams delivering projects in the field to raise awareness and capability around recognizing change, and appropriate responses. With respect to complacency, it’s about keeping safety alive in all of our conversations and engagements with staff – whether that be at a global level, an office level or at a site level on a daily basis. It’s a constant and enduring conversation.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

ERM’s stated purpose is to “shape a sustainable future with the world’s leading organizations.”  Safe and healthy workforces are an essential component of sustainability and therefore we cannot deliver on our purpose or be successful on a sustainable basis without them. It is core to who we are and what we do, as well as our success. We need to put the safety of our people, our contractors, our clients, employees and the community first.


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

A number of years ago we developed “Safety AT ERM.” This is not only a set of five key elements that define our health and safety program, it is also a tagline and mantra that supports our continued journey toward safety excellence. Collectively, these elements help our entire staff to both understand and articulate the most important aspects of our overall H&S program. They also help us, as an organization, remain focused as we look to identify opportunities to improve upon our H&S performance. AT ERM includes:

  • Active leadership
  • Training and competency
  • Emphasizing positive safety
  • Risk management
  • Maintaining balance

With this framework in place, we use a wide variety of engagement mechanisms to talk about and celebrate safety performance, including our safety induction process, safety shares/moments at all meetings, development of a library of safety alerts to share learnings, safety performance is recognized through our quarterly awards program, we host a Global Safety Day (which as one of our five Safety AT ERM headlines as the overall theme), and we conduct regular training. During partner and staff calls, we recognize and discuss particular safety events/issues.


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 have a global safety dashboard, which is available to all partners and staff but is reported to the executive committee at each meeting. Our internal indicators are built around our five AT ERM components and include measures of leadership engagement, subcontractor illness/injury rates, RI and TRIR, subsurface clearance/overhead intercept events, mandatory training compliance, high-risk rate reduction, safety awards (three categories), corrective action status including high-risk CAPA status. We report a subset of these indicators in our annual sustainability report. Like many organizations, we are always looking to identify leading measures of safety performance and have some longer term goals around our maturity as an organization.


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?

Because safety is a value at ERM, we encourage our employees to adopt safe behaviors in all aspects of their lives, for their benefit and that of their families. We don’t have explicit “off the job” safety programs, but all of our material is available for use by ERM staff at home and individual offices in different locations will run events and programs that are in line with local staff demand. We actively engage families in our Global Safety Day with a children’s coloring competition and a video competition.


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

ERM had a range of programs available prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 has required us to relook at all of our mental health and well-being programs to ensure our staff is able to deal with the challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19. In addition to having open conversations with our staff on this topic, we have drawn on specialist expertise to advise our COVID Taskforce and executive committee, developed and rolled out mental health awareness sessions, developed and implemented training for line managers on the topic, provided access to apps such as CALM, and expanded or reinforced access to employee assistance programs where these are available in different jurisdictions around the world.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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Jeremy Kucera

Jeremy Kucera

Duro Electric Co.
Englewood, CO


  • Jeremy has a written statement that explains his commitment to safety, and each employee is issued a laminated wallet card with this statement on it.
  • Jeremy will never ask an employee to put himself or herself in harm’s way to get the job completed. He is a firm believer in zero energized work and even requires that all energized work be approved by the safety manager and himself before the work can be completed.
  • He commits to conducting at least two project safety audits each quarter and takes the time to walk each project and talk with the employees directly.

Duro Electric provides preconstruction, construction services, design-build/design-assist, estimating, maintenance, and emergency response services to the Colorado market. Duro Electric employs 175 workers.

Jeremy Kucera


Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

My journey began from a young age working with my father’s electrical company in South Dakota. After high school, I attended South Dakota State University and was in the electrical engineering program. After one year of schooling, I realized that was not the career I wanted. I was more of a hands-on guy!

I went back home and continued working for my father’s company and achieved my journeyman’s license. While working, I volunteered to join the South Dakota National Guard as a combat engineer. I quickly moved up to the rank of staff sergeant and was deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom from 2004 to 2005. After deployment, I returned home and continued working.

One day I woke up and realized I wanted to see and do more and moved to Denver. I had a dream of building bigger and more complex projects. Once I arrived, I quickly found a new job working as a foreman for Duro Electric. After working in the field for five years, I moved into the office environment to become the business development and preconstruction manager for the company. I learned a lot of valuable business-related experience during these years and was promoted to president in 2017.

Throughout my many years in this trade and in the military, I have learned and been trained on many business and safety topics that have helped give me an understanding of what it takes to “get it.” First, you need to be aware of who you are as a person and use that self-awareness to make improvements to yourself. Every day you need to learn something from yesterday, then use that knowledge to move forward. You take all those experiences – good and not so good – and use them to make yourself and the company be the best they can be. Once the company culture is improved, great things will happen. People will start taking ownership for their actions and work to improve in every way they can.


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

I would have to say that one of the biggest obstacles to safety at Duro Electric is getting the message out to all employees. The bulk of our workforce is spread across multiple construction projects throughout the state. To overcome communication issues, we meet regularly with the field leadership teams. Weekly meetings are held with the preconstruction and project management team, and quarterly we meet with the field superintendents and foremen. At every meeting, safety is one of the first things we talk about. I speak to current safety issues and my safety manager provides updates on any ongoing safety concerns and initiatives. I also have my staff publish two newsletters every month. One focuses on Duro Electric operations (to include all departments and leadership updates), and the other is specific to safety. The operational newsletter has a space reserved for comments from myself (titled “Jeremy’s Corner”). I talk about how the company is performing and address safety issues relevant for that month. I take every opportunity to include our safety manager in all departmental meetings; it helps to set the tone of the meeting and get everyone thinking about safety.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Safety is an integral part of who we are and how we do business. When you look at our values, it starts with safety first, followed by financial success, employee satisfaction and teamwork, and customer satisfaction. We understand that safety in an inherent part of doing business, and everything stems from performing work safely. If employees feel safe and comfortable in their work environment, they will perform better, productivity and efficiency will increase, and they will provide a better product to our customers. In turn, the business is awarded more contracts and makes money. It’s that simple. You cannot succeed in this industry without a focus on safety. It takes a different mindset and a willingness to have faith in and empower your employees to do what’s right and act when necessary.


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

During the interview process, we talk about our workplace safety program and culture. We are looking to see if safety is a part of their values and if they will be a good fit for the organization. During the new-hire orientation, they receive a card – signed by me – talking about my commitment to safety and giving them the authority to stop and take action if they see something wrong. I get out to the jobsites and talk with the workers. I lead by example (I wear my gloves, safety glasses, hard hat, etc.), and I ask them how the job is going. I participate in their morning stretch and flex exercises and make myself available for questions. We have weekly meetings with the project management staff and the first thing we talk about is safety. During our strategic planning sessions, safety is the first item on the plan. Together with the executive leadership team, we identify projects and deliverables that will enhance our safety culture and performance. I also review and respond to all recordable accidents within the company. Together with my leadership team, we review the incident (along with the worker, their supervisor and the project manager) to identify operational weaknesses and areas for improvement. I am constantly looking for opportunities to incorporate safety into our routine.


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? 

I meet with my safety manager biweekly to review all projects and happenings with the safety department. We look at budgets, safety program updates, workers’ compensation claims, employee training and initiatives, safety committee updates, fleet safety, our status on obtaining the OSHA VPP status, and any additional topics as necessary. We don’t have a lot of workplace injuries and therefore must look at other metrics for safety performance. My safety manager distributes a safety dashboard to the field leadership team every month that looks at current statistics within the company, but also addresses unsafe behaviors and observations collected from jobsite audits (performed by the safety manger, project managers and the vice president of operations). In addition, he also distributes a fleet dashboard report to all company drivers addressing the same issues (driver performance and driver habits obtained from our fleet telematics program). We send out a periodic survey to the employees to gauge our safety performance and effectiveness.

We are working to incorporate our employees more into the process. We have a self-directed safety committee that is helping to lead the way with identifying training needs and looking at opportunities to enhance employee learning and engagement.  


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 past couple of years we have started to focus on total worker health. These efforts include providing training and resources for physical health as well as mental wellness. I understand that I need my workers safe on and off the job, as well as mentally healthy. If they have issues or problems outside of work, that directly impacts their ability to perform the job to our standards and makes for a potentially unsafe workplace. We are not a large organization and every employee has a huge impact on our operations. Having just one person out can significantly impact the project they are working on.


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

As stated previously, total worker health is a big initiative for us here at Duro. I have supported and encouraged our safety manager to explore community resources and programs that can assist our workers with mental wellness. In addition, we participate in national campaigns such as Safe + Sound Week and Suicide Prevention Month. I support our safety manager in presenting suicide prevention trainings both within the company and to our association partners. I want to spread the message that mental wellness is a problem in the construction industry and Duro supports our employees in all aspects of safety and health.


2020 CEOs Who Get it
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Jeff Owens

Jeff Owens

Advanced Technology Services Inc.
Peoria, IL


  • Jeff personally helped drive the company’s evolution to its current Live Safety/Beyond Zero culture.
  • He made safety a core value, underscoring the recognition that no one wants to work for or hire an unsafe company.
  • Jeff launched the President’s Award for Safety Excellence. Presented annually to ATS sites that achieve 12 consecutive months meeting a defined criterion, this award bolstered the company’s long-standing “Zero Incidents” objective and rewarded sustained safety performance.
  • He launched the expectation that area business managers, site managers and site supervisors obtain the Board of Certified Safety Professionals Safety Trained Supervisor certification.

Advanced Technology Services Inc. is a leading industrial services provider with more than three decades of proven experience in technology-driven industrial maintenance and MRO asset management. Through a technically skilled workforce, standardized processes and Manufacturing 4.0 technologies, ATS delivers improved asset health and productivity to many leading process and discrete manufacturers.


Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

When I first joined ATS in 1988 as a sales representative, it was a small, three-year-old industrial maintenance services company just trying to survive and grow, and safety was not its primary focus. By the time I became president and chief operating officer in 2004, safety was a prominent goal but still largely compliance-focused. I committed then to raising the bar by embedding safety in the company’s overall philosophy and core culture.

One of the influences in my life that made safety so important to me was a visit to the hospital several years ago. One of our rising young maintenance technicians (now a senior leader in our company) had been injured onsite at a customer plant. A lifting strap failed and a piece of machinery fell on him, breaking his leg and sending him to the hospital. It was a first for me to visit an employee at a hospital due to an on-the-job injury.

I vividly remember walking in and feeling sick to my stomach. While being there and talking with the employee and his father, I realized I was trying to make something terrible seem OK, or at least better, but what I really needed to do was prevent anything like that from ever happening again. That day was a turning point for me. As I left the hospital, I made a personal commitment to take action. I knew that safety excellence was ultimately my responsibility and I owed it to every employee and their families to do whatever necessary to implement a culture that put us on a path to zero incidents. 

The journey to our current Live Safety/Beyond Zero culture reflects our dedication to continuous improvement. The first major milestone was establishing Live Safety as ATS’s leading cultural commitment in 2006. Live Safety encourages all employees to make safety a way of life – in and out of the workplace – instead of only focusing on zero injuries and OSHA compliance.
To bolster our zero incidents objective and reward sustained safety performance, the President’s Award for Safety Excellence was launched in 2008. It is presented annually to ATS sites that achieve 12 consecutive months of meeting a defined criterion.

In 2014, I set a new requirement that all area business managers, site managers and site supervisors would obtain the Board of Certified Safety Professionals Safety Trained Supervisor certification within 12 months. We currently have over 160 employees holding STS certification and ATS is a BCSP Diamond Sponsor.

That same year, our Safety Dashboard was launched. The dashboard represents our recipe for an incident-free environment, and I continually challenge our leadership team and the environmental, health and safety team to refine and improve it. The President’s Award for Safety Excellence was connected to the dashboard in 2016.

By 2018, I believed the time was right to take our Live Safety culture to the next level: encompassing the overall well-being of every employee, in and outside of work. As a result, Beyond Zero replaced Incident Free as a subtext to our Live Safety brand.

Last year marked the introduction of the Beyond Zero Challenge. It is a personal award for employees completing certain safety and well-being activities over the course of a year, such as identifying hazards, performing inspections or improving personal well-being in some manner.
There are countless additional ways we have worked to ingrain the Live Safety/Beyond Zero culture. It is one of the four key management systems in our operating system (safety, people, process and technology), the first topic at executive meetings, discussed repeatedly on the job, trained and reinforced routinely, visible on company graphics, and so much more. I have found it personally rewarding to see the positive impact our safety initiatives have had on our team over the years – both on the job and in their personal lives.


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

Ensuring the safety of thousands of employees serving hundreds of customer manufacturing facilities across the United States, the United Kingdom and Mexico is no small feat. Varying job risks, non-routine tasks, diverse plant environments and varying customer expectations all pose a challenge.  

We have several strategies to address these obstacles:

  • Screening potential new employees and leaders with challenging safety-related questions in the interview process
  • Training site leaders on their role in creating an environment where employees are motivated to Live Safety 24/7
  • Conducting pulse surveys two to four times a year to get the “voice of the technician”
  • Maintaining strong safety management systems that are focused on continuous improvement and flexible to encourage employee engagement and ownership
  • Reducing risk to ATS and customer employees by improving their “eyes for safety” through education as well as hazard reporting and management 


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Simply put, we care about and value our employees. Many of our employees are maintenance technicians, and due to the nature of their job, they will perform potentially hazardous tasks. Our programs are intended to provide our technicians the education and resources they need to make the right decisions on how to safely execute each task.

Furthermore, we strongly believe that our success begins with having a strong safety culture. Live Safety is the first of our four cultural pillars because it is fundamental to success:

Live Safety: Safety excellence and personal well-being are foundational. Employees need to think it, feel it and live it every day.

Value Employees: Without knowing that ATS cares about their safety, employees would not feel valued.

Engage Customers: Without valued employees, customers would not be engaged. 

Drive Results: Without engaged customers, ATS would not get results.   


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

I made it my personal mission to ensure ATS has the right systems, processes, investments and people in place to help all employees move beyond the Zero Incident objective and to a holistic Live Safety/Beyond Zero culture.

All employees receive an aggressive, 90-day safety orientation with topics ranging from compliance-based training to Live Safety, job safety analysis, safety conversations and the Beyond Zero core elements. Beyond Zero tips and weekly toolbox talks are designed to educate and engage the team in conversations about the subject. Each monthly Eyes for Safety publication focuses on a specific physical hazard to help improve hazard recognition and reporting.

Site employees are awarded and recognized with the President’s Award for Safety Excellence when their 12-month score on the Safety Dashboard is 100% or greater. Individual employees are recognized though our Beyond Zero Challenge with our GEAR (Gratitude & Encouragement through Acknowledgement & Recognition) program or with a culture coin when they demonstrate the ATS Live Safety principles.

I also believe a strong safety culture starts with strong leadership. For example, all site leaders are provided a full day of training on creating a culture that motivates employees to Live Safety 24/7. Also, when executives and area leaders visit a site, they are tasked with completing a Leadership Site Visit Observation, which requires them to engage with the technicians and evaluate their perceptions of the key safety activities at the site. Afterward, feedback and coaching are provided.


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? 

The Safety Dashboard reflects leading indicators (proactive activity) rather than lagging indicators such as accidents. Site managers are responsible for their index scores on the dashboard. It currently measures safety training, the percentage of the workforce observed through leadership safety observations, corrective action completion, safety inspection completion, self-assessment completion, Plan-for-Zero status and toolbox talk delivery. Our biggest challenge is keeping the actions that are measured transformational and not transactional (checking a box).

Our focus on leading indicators is helping our lagging indicator performance. We are proud that ATS has achieved world-class safety performance as measured by the OSHA recordable incident rate and OSHA lost-time rate. In fact, two impressive new milestones were reached in 2020:

  • 89 days/>1M hours without a recordable incident
  • 144 days/>2M hours without a lost time incident


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?

Our Live Safety 24/7 culture encourages all employees to make safety a way of life, in and out of the workplace. Because safety excellence and personal well-being are foundational, we want our employees to think it, feel it and live it every day.

The success of our program relies on safety being a value or “state of being” (both conscious and subconscious), instead of just a priority – not only for our employees but also for family, friends, co-workers and customer employees. An ideal ATS employee will be able to confirm the following statements without hesitation:

  • “I am open to initiating safety conversations with others.”
  • “I am passionate about making a difference relative to safety in our company.”
  • “I don’t care what others think. If I feel it is the right thing to do from a safety standpoint, I’ll fight for it.” 


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

Because personal distractions are just as much a safety risk as technical errors, we stopped using the term “incident-free” and started using Beyond Zero to create a culture of well-being throughout ATS. Beyond Zero encourages employees to continually improve their well-being for themselves, family and friends, and includes five interconnected core elements: Live Safety 24/7, physical well-being, emotional well-being, social well-being and financial well-being.

The Beyond Zero Challenge is a platform designed to educate and motivate employees on each of the five core elements, with resources and tools for the employees and their families.

Examples include employee testimonials, online training, toolbox talks, daily Beyond Zero tips, and holiday-centered “stand-downs” that focus on internal and external factors that could impact an employee’s emotional well-being and lead to a “mind not on task” incident.

In 2020, a multifunctional team was chartered to review the metrics related to the employee assistance program and provide specific actions to highlight the benefit for the employees and their families.

One thing I can promise is that ATS’s commitment to a strong safety culture and our employees’ well-being will never waver, and our journey for continuous improvement will never end.


2021 CEOs Who Get it
Stephen Sandherr

Stephen Sandherr

The Associated General Contractors of America
Arlington, VA


  • Under Stephen’s watch, the association established the nation’s premier construction safety recognition program, the Construction Safety Excellence Awards. This program recognizes the most effective safety programs among member firms and encourages other firms to improve their safety programs.
  • He has made it a priority to build a strong, working relationship with federal safety officials. This includes partnering with OSHA to ensure member firms understand how to successfully comply with all safety regulations.
  • He made sure AGC became a signature supporter of National Construction Safety Week and has been actively encouraging as many members and chapters to participate in the week’s activities as possible. He has also made sure that AGC has played vital roles in industrywide efforts to reduce drug and alcohol use and address high suicide levels among construction workers.

The Associated General Contractors of America is the trade association for the commercial construction industry in the United States. Its mission is to ensure the continued success of the construction industry by advocating for federal, state and local measures that support the industry; providing opportunities for firms to learn about ways to become more accomplished; and connecting them with the resources and individuals they need to be successful business and corporate citizens. More than 27,000 firms are members of AGC.


Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

First off, it is important to note that the Associated General Contractors of America is the trade association that represents the commercial construction industry within the United States. As a result, when we talk about our commitment to safety, we are talking about much more than making sure our several dozen office employees have a safe and healthy work environment.

What we are really talking about is our commitment to providing the kind of resources, instruction, information and encouragement to improve the health and safety of the construction workforce in this county.

Since our inception in 1918, our association has always placed a high value on safety in the construction industry. Since before I become CEO in the 1990s, AGC has offered construction safety programming and operated its annual Construction Safety Excellence Awards, which highlights firms’ successful construction practices and encourages other members to follow suit.

As CEO, I have consistently worked to support and expand our safety offerings. One of the biggest turning points for me, however, came several years ago when we commissioned a team of researchers to review every construction fatality over a three-year period. Its final report offered a new level of detail about the causes of construction fatalities. Its underlying message was clear: Construction fatalities can be prevented.

The release of that report in 2017 inspired us to redouble our efforts when it came to construction safety. We issued guidance to member firms based on the study’s findings to help improve workplace safety. This included encouraging them to hold safety talks midday, when most construction fatalities occur; to pay close attention to work taking place midweek; and to be extra vigilant about drug and alcohol consumption on or near jobsites. We also made a conscious decision to make all our safety resources available – free of charge – to anyone, regardless of membership. There is nothing proprietary about safety.

We partnered with National Construction Safety Week to begin urging all our member firms to participate in the annual effort to stop construction work and hold what are called safety stand-downs – on jobsite safety programs designed to highlight specific risk areas and safety practices. We also partnered with several of our state chapters to organize statewide safety stand-downs designed to educate construction workers about the dangers of opioid abuse, how to identify individuals who are at risk and how to prevent it.

But the biggest catalyst came once the COVID-19 pandemic began to threaten the health and safety of the industry. The coronavirus presented a unique challenge for our industry. We didn’t just need to focus on protecting workers, but also had to make certain the construction sector was doing its part to protect communities from the spread of the virus. Within days, we organized safety webinars to provide firms (members and non-members alike) with safety resources and advice on how to protect workers from the virus.

We made resources available online and we organized a nationwide safety stand-down in early April to make sure firms were enforcing all coronavirus-safety-related precautions. Thousands of firms participated in the stand-down. As a result, our industry has largely avoided the kind of widespread coronavirus outbreaks that have crippled so many other sectors of the economy. This allowed construction to continue operating as an essential part of the economy in many parts of the country.


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

There are several big obstacles to safety in the construction industry. The first is simply the sheer size and number of firms involved in the industry. Ours is not like the airlines or auto manufacturing sectors that are dominated by a handful of large firms. Our association alone counts over 27,000 firms as members, and each has a unique safety culture and program. While this diversity makes our industry more agile and competitive, it presents a challenge when it comes to safety training and education.

The other challenge is simply the nature of construction work. In most other industries, workers operate in environments that rarely change and perform similar tasks day in and day out. But construction workers not only perform a wide range of different tasks, but their jobsite changes, sometimes by the hour.


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

Construction is an inherently risky activity. Few other careers require professionals to work so closely with moving equipment on jobsites that change every day. Many crews work at elevated height or within underground excavation sites. And our highway crews often work within feet of fast-moving traffic. As the trade association for the commercial construction industry, we feel a special sense of obligation to do everything within our power to help our members protect their most valuable assets: construction craft professionals. Nobody should have to risk their lives just to earn a living. And we want to make sure every construction worker goes home, safely, at the end of every workday.


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

The simple answer is repetition and talk to as many people as possible. We are constantly providing safety education programs and resources for our members. We like to say that you can’t talk about safety enough. And we have regular communications that go out to members in a variety of roles. Everyone at a construction firm is responsible for safety, not just the safety directors, so we try to reach everyone as much as possible to make sure they have the tools they need to protect and empower their workers. I have also written directly to the CEOs of our major firms, especially since the coronavirus, to encourage them to make sure their firms are taking every possible step to protect workers and local communities from the coronavirus.


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 closely monitor and track the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on construction workplace fatality totals and rates, as well as comparable data on construction workplace injury totals and rates. We also conduct annual surveys on highway work zone safety, how labor shortages are impacting construction safety, and, more recently, how the coronavirus is impacting the health and safety of the construction workforce. We closely track all these datasets and use them to inform our safety programming and the types of resources and messages we send to our member firms.


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?

We do feel strongly that safety does not start or stop at the construction jobsites. That is why we have created and promoted programs that focus on worker health outside of the jobsite. This includes creating programs to address substance abuse, suicide prevention and opioid addiction. In addition, we have also worked with our chapters, particularly in warmer parts of the country, to promote at-home hydration so workers show up on jobsites ready to handle the heat safely.


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

One of our new initiatives this year is the release of our “Culture of Care” program. This program is designed to help construction firms create welcoming jobsites so they can successfully retain a more diverse workforce. But it also places a special emphasis on supporting the mental health and well-being of construction workers. Indeed, we accelerated the release of this program once the pandemic hit, in fact, to make sure that firms had the resources they need to ensure workers’ mental health needs were being address.


2019 CEOs Who Get it
Lt. Gen. Todd Semonite

Mark Vergnano

President and CEO
The Chemours Co.
Wilmington, DE


  • Mark has built a culture in which employees uphold Chemours’ core values, one of which is “Safety Obsession” – the belief that only when its workplace and employees are safe can Chemours operate profitably.
  • He actively participated with frontline employees in a day-long workshop on hazard identification and mitigation. This included a simulated field exercise that challenged everyone to spot multiple staged safety hazards in a maintenance shop.
  • At the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, he made it clear that Chemours’ “North Star” would be the health and safety of its employees and their families. Mark then went on to bring that commitment to life by communicating with Chemours’ global workforce at every step through self-recorded videos, vlogs, emails and live-stream conversations.

The Chemours Co. is a global leader in titanium technologies, fluoroproducts and chemical solutions, providing its customers with essential solutions in a wide range of industries. Chemours’ ingredients are found in plastics and coatings, refrigeration and air conditioning, mining, and general industrial manufacturing. The company has approximately 7,000 employees and 30 manufacturing sites serving approximately 3,700 customers in more than 120 countries.


Describe your personal journey to becoming a CEO who “gets it.”

Prior to leading Chemours, I spent 35 years with DuPont in a variety of roles ranging from technology to operations to sales to business management, so I have seen what it takes to keep our people safe while operating some very complicated and potentially hazardous processes. It only takes one conversation with an injured employee’s family to make you realize that any injury is one too many. Protecting our people is a clear and inspired purpose, and it’s one of my most important jobs as a leader.


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

At companies like ours, it’s crucial to have strong processes in place to identify and manage workplace risks and to avoid any temptation for complacency. We tackle this through the combined efforts of our safety team and the diligence of our entire workforce. At Chemours, we empower – and expect – all our employees to speak up and stop a job if they see something unsafe. We reinforce this in our trainings, in our coaching and in the way we operate every day. 


Why is safety a core value at your organization?

At Chemours, “safety obsession” is one of our five core values. “Obsession” means we are never satisfied with where we are and constantly seek opportunities to raise the bar. Our diligence in this regard is important to our people, and it’s also why many of our customers choose to work with us. At the end of the day, our obsession with continuous improvement is good for our people and good for business.


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

We have a shop floor safety team, which captures ideas and feedback from frontline employees. We have safety champions who promote a safe workplace. And we talk about safety every day, involving all 7,000 of our employees in the improvement conversation. Safely operating is a requirement for all of us who want to work at Chemours.


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 measure safety in many ways, including near-miss reporting, identifying and tracking hazard elimination, safety stops and audits, and a regular National Safety Council Safety and Culture Survey that captures input from employees. When employees speak up to stop or pause a job when they see something unsafe, that’s when we know the message is getting through, and that allows us to take appropriate action in real time. Getting constant feedback allows us to improve faster.


What role does off-the-job safety play in your organization’s overall safety program?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a strong reminder that we can’t let our guard down at the end of the workday, because it’s important to minimize the hazards we’re exposed to outside the job as well. We continue to work with employees to provide them the resources and flexibility they need to navigate new off-the-job dangers, like those posed by the pandemic.


What have you done to support employee mental health and well-being within your organization?

Chemours has changed its definition of safety to not only include physical safety, but also psychological safety, something we refer to as “holistic safety.” We want our people to feel physically and mentally safe in their jobs so they can bring their best self to work every day.  That requires us to create the right inclusive environment and support our employees with training and programs that improve their overall health and safety.