Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Derek Morgan’s EHS Passion Is Guided by Values, Vulnerability, and Football

Derek Morgan, East Coast Corporate Safety Director at Rosendin, is a rising star in the environment, health, and safety (EHS) field who achieved a leadership position at an early age. Read on for more about Morgan’s career and his advice for safety professionals, how his experiences on his university football team shaped his leadership principles, and how his values continue to be his rock throughout his day-to-day work in safety.

Derek Morgan, Faces of EHSLet’s start off with what initially led you to become interested in and then pursue a career in the EHS field.

What got me into safety? Long story short, like any kid who grows up playing sports, for me, it was football. I always wanted to be in the NFL, and that was my dream. Going up through high school, I knew that I loved sports, I loved cars, and I loved working with my hands. So, when I went into college, it was with open-mindedness, and I did not declare a major at that point.

Fast-forward 2 years, and I finally got to the point where I sat down with my head football coach, Dr. Mihalik, and he said, “Hey, Derek, what do you want to do with your life?” And I said, “You know what, I was thinking about being a teacher. I like to teach, but I’m really not too sure.” So he told me, “What about safety?” And I said, “Well, what about it?” And the conversation really started. I really had no idea exactly what safety was at that point and what that industry really held as far as opportunities and workload went. I got into safety that next semester—Introduction to Safety is what it was.

I got into it, and I started to like it. And as I was sitting through that class, I remembered growing up that I had a lot of family members who were in the unions: tradesmen, ironworkers, electricians, stuff like that. And all the time that I was growing up as a little kid, they always came home and talked about the safety guy this or safety guy that. And it hit me—I was like, “By God, this is me. I’m about to become this person.”

So, after that semester, I went home. I believe it was a winter break or Thanksgiving break. I went home, and my family’s there—all these members who were tradesmen—and I had finally declared that my major was going to be in safety. And they had asked, “Hey, Derek, your mom said you finally picked a major. What’d you pick?” And I said, “Yeah, I decided I’m going to be a safety professional.” And they immediately told me get the heck out of their house, you know? Because they thought I was going to be that guy.

Right there, a mission and a goal was born to change the perception of who a safety professional is. It’s not that guy or girl who is carrying a book, walking a jobsite, and making sure that you’re following the code and you’re abiding by all the rules. It’s being somebody who not only understands all the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations but also understands the tradesmen and women who go to work every day, what they deal with, how they have to perform their job, and the obstacles that they face, not only on the job but also in their personal lives .

So, I’ve seen that growing up in my life with my family, both on the job and personally, because personal is just as real as on the job. And if people don’t think that they correlate, that couldn’t be further from the truth. But that was my goal, and that’s what really fueled my passion to become a safety professional and do what I can do—I call it your platform. I use my platform to the best of my ability to help the men and women in our industry—in this case, in the construction industry—and change the perception of what a safety professional really is. It’s someone who is there to be a resource for the men and women, to educate them, to help come up with solutions, and to be a liaison between the field and upper management and be the peacekeeper, if you will. That’s the goal of a safety professional.

That’s really how I got into safety—it was kind of by chance. Obviously, the football story did not end well for me, so I had to let that dream go, and I pursued this one and truly believe it was intended that I went down this path.

What sort of work are you doing now as East Coast Corporate Safety Director at Rosendin? You mentioned it’s in the construction industry, but what sorts of EHS challenges are you facing every day?

I think the challenge is just changing that perception of who the safety person is. Another challenge is you’re fighting against older philosophies, older ways of how safety was treated and who was responsible for safety. And then you have older behaviors. The common saying is, “Why, I’ve done it this way for over 20 years.” Or, “I’ve done it longer than you’ve been alive. How old are you? You could be my son. Don’t tell me what’s right, what’s wrong.” So that’s your constant challenge.

For me now, it is standardizing. We have three offices on the East Coast in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina, and my role now is more on the oversight level, with 20-plus safety professionals on the East Coast. Where do we have some areas for improvement? Where can I help my staff? Same thing with our frontline supervisors in the field. What can I do to help not only them but also our other safety professionals be the most effective resource to them? And what paths can we lay out for safety professionals to become the best versions of themselves? In a nutshell, that’s essentially my role as the East Coast Corporate Safety Director and the challenges involved.

Safety management

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You’ve had an incredible career so far, with 3 major promotions in less than 5 years, and now you’re in a leadership position. How did you go about accomplishing this sort of professional success, and how do you strive to be a role model for others?

I definitely did not get here alone. I’ve had a lot of people along the way, ever since I got into Rosendin, who have really been a wealth of knowledge and have been open to sharing their experiences. So, what I have done and what I preach is to just absorb everything. I ask a thousand questions. I try not to ask the same question a thousand times, but I ask a thousand questions just to make sure I learn everything inside and out. You always want to know the whys. If you have to do something a certain way, why? And it’s the same thing for the guys out in the field. As a safety person, you tell them to do something, and they want to know why and rightfully so.

I’ve just taken any opportunity that was presented to me, and I ran with it. You definitely have to break outside of your comfort zone. If someone asks, “Hey, you want to do this?” you may have that initial reaction where you’re like, “Uh, I don’t know.” That’s where you take that opportunity because you’re going to push past a barrier and continue to grow.

For me here, I’m a product of people I’ve surrounded myself with—good people who have good values and good principles. I’ve adopted those, and I’ve taken the knowledge of these more experienced people, not just in safety but also in project management and field leadership—our craftsmen, all those guys, everybody. It’s a team environment. So, in order for people in that team to be the best version of themselves, we’ve got to learn from our older classmen ahead of us. So don’t repeat the same mistakes that they have made. Even though that’s the best way that you learn personally, I try not to.

Everyone’s been great. This has been a great company to be a part of, and the culture here at Rosendin is an environment that encourages people to break down their barriers and become the best version of themselves. It encourages us to think outside the box and innovate and come up with different solutions, different ideas. It also invests a lot of time and resources into us to get more education, to get training, and to have exposure to different areas. We’re a nationwide company, and I had the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to go to Arizona and see a different location within the same organization. And just to have the ability to do that creates excitement within me. It helps me become the best version of myself because I want to give this company my all.

You talked a little bit earlier about when you were in school and you decided to become a safety management major—you graduated from Slippery Rock University with a bachelor’s degree in safety management, and you were on its four-time championship football team. Could you tell us about that whole experience and how it’s informed your EHS career and your outlook on professional development and leadership?

I’m a very firm believer in your foundation from which you create your morals, your principles, and the way that you live your life. It’s all precedent on your foundation. For me, my foundation is football and the lessons and experiences that I’ve learned and went through in football. Even dating further back in high school, a lot of the same principles.

But really, Slippery Rock is where I really homed in on those foundations, which include handling adversity; handling success; handling failures; working in a team where you have a hundred different personalities it seems like, a lot of different backgrounds, and a lot of different ethnicities, races, and upbringings; how to deal with people; how to work; and how to count on somebody else in order for the success of the team to be achieved.

Being part of a winning program is not easy. There are a lot of tough things that you have to do and you have to sacrifice in order for the team to achieve that pinnacle goal of winning a championship. A lot of those sacrifices challenge you as a person and as an individual to really look in the mirror. You know, you have to look in the mirror, and you have to do what’s asked, and you have to be held accountable.

Just for one example, if a guy was late to meetings or was late to practice or didn’t touch the line or something like that, the whole team was punished for it. And that guy who caused the team to run or do extra reps got to stand there and watch. And then after the team was done, then that guy would go in and do his reps. But it just taught us that no shortcut that you make personally is worth other people dealing with the consequences of it. It really instilled accountability in us as players to sacrifice and do what we needed to do to make the team successful.

The adversity, for me … I grew up in central Pennsylvania, which is the boons. There’s not much going on up there. I went from central PA to a Pittsburgh location, and then graduating from college and coming down to the DMV area, it was like night and day. You’ve got six-, eight-lane highways. People were moving a hundred miles an hour, nonstop, 24/7. It was a culture shock. So for me, that was adversity hitting. How do you deal with it? How do you adapt and overcome?

So, these principles from football and dealing with success, failure, and all the things that come with it I think it directly translate to any industry or any profession that you go into. A lot of those principles and lessons can be applied to where you’re at. I call it my rock. If you start to lose your way or you feel like some things are throwing you off, you go back to your rock, and you draw your source of power from it. That’s how I go about my day to day, and everything that I do is based on the principles I learned from those years at Slippery Rock.

As a leader in the EHS field, what do you see as the main emerging trends, both the positive ones and maybe some negative ones, too, that are affecting the future of EHS?

That’s a touchy one. For me, you look at me, I’m 28, so I am in the “millennial” category. For me, I find the millennial word offensive because it usually gets associated with no work ethic, people who are on their phones, and people who don’t know how to work with their hands. Me, I’m more of a blue-collar-type mind-set, and I just got that from being in football and then my family of working tradesmen.

What I see as a trend, both in safety and in the field, is it’s becoming more difficult for safety professionals my age (and even younger) to have that understanding of what these guys and girls really do and put themselves in their shoes to have more of an understanding of what their task is, what their burdens may be, and the stresses that they feel from being in a new environment, having schedules, having to do work, having to perform, showing up every single day when you’re tired and your arms hurt from pulling wire or something like that and you still got to show up to work. Then on the flip side, you’re telling them that they need to do X, Y, and Z because you’ve said so, and that doesn’t sit very well for that person who’s receiving that, and it’s a challenge getting some of our safety professionals to understand. I think the industry as a whole is doing a great job, but I see that as a developing trend.

And then, as far as our guys out in the field—the tradesmen—there are less quality tradesmen now, it seems. They’re not as trained, not as … and I don’t want to say it the wrong way … they’re not as bought in to the way that guys of old, who would be proud of their work that they do. The craftsmanship—the ownership and the craftsmanship. They take a lot of pride in installing pipe or getting their work done a certain way in a professional manner. It’s not so evident now that that same work ethic, that same pride in your work, is translated to that next generation, and that next generation isn’t as trained or knowledgeable on construction as a whole. I’d say that’s a developing trend.

There are positives, though. People are excited to learn. We have a lot of people who are go-getters and looking for the opportunity to not just have a job but also have a career. A lot of people I went to school with, we were told that you’d be lucky if you had three or four jobs as a safety professional. You know, your first job, you just want to get experience. Your second job, you’re looking for money. And then your third job, you’re looking for location, and that’s like your rule of thumb.

For me and a lot of people I went to school with, we’re still at the very first job that gave us an opportunity about 5 years ago. So, in the construction industry, if you’re able to stay at one place for a long time and truly establish your career with one company, one organization, it’s kind of like a unicorn, right? You’re seeing unicorns. Especially as a safety professional—you’re a dime a dozen at times. For me to find a place where I’m able to be the best version of myself—I say that a lot, but be the best version of myself—and given every opportunity to make a difference is great.

And there are a lot more companies that are not just saying safety is important to them but also proving it. They’re investing in safety professionals to help them establish a good safety culture and build their business with that same foundation of safety. It’s not just lip service; it’s something that we truly believe in, and we care about our employees, and we want to provide a safe and healthy work environment. That’s probably the biggest and most encouraging trend of late that I have seen. And it’s not just in this DMV area; it’s in other areas in the country, too. So it’s very exciting and very, very good to see the support, not just from the safety network but also actually from organizations.

You just mentioned building a better safety culture—do you have any tips that you’ve learned for good communication and leadership that could be informative for EHS professionals who are looking to build that better safety culture at their organizations?

I’ve always been somebody who was never quick to be that person who speaks up in a group. I was more of the listener. I was not a follower, but I was more of a listener, and I’m very observant. I like to know where everybody stands on particular situations. I like to know what to expect from everybody, and that’s how I’d been up until I got to Rosendin.

Being at Rosendin, especially now in my current role, I am now forced to speak more on items that I either agree with don’t agree with, or I’m asked “What’s your stance on this?” or told that you’re supposed to be this guru who has all the answers, and then on the spot, you have to be able to do an impromptu response at any moment. That has been an adjustment for me, but then that’s another barrier where if you’re uncomfortable, you’ve got to break through and overcome it.

Safety team, safety leadership

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But with leadership, leadership comes in a lot of different forms and fashions. The one that I believe is the most valuable and with which you will have the most success is servant leadership, where it’s more of you’re not talking, you’re doing. You’re showing, and you’re leading by example. You embody all the characteristics of what you are looking for and what you are asking others to do, and you’re showing them that it is done. You’re being graceful. You’re being not naïve, but you’re being open to failures, and you’re the first one there to say, “Hey, it’s OK. What did we learn? What can we get better at, and what direction can I help us go so that we don’t do this again or that we can learn together?” That’s my principle on leadership. Also, never try and be the guy who knows everything. My grandpa taught me the saying “You can’t BS a BS’er.” Especially when it comes to these older guys who know better and claim they could be your dad or your mom, you don’t want to do it to those people because as soon as you try and BS them, especially in the safety realm, and they catch you in it or they know that you’re now just pulling stuff out of your hat, you’ve lost all credibility, and you’re going to spend a lot of time digging yourself out of that hole or rebuilding that trust.

The second part of this is trust and respect. If you abuse that or if you try and manipulate it in any way, they’re going to know. They’re smart, and they’re adults. They know better. They’ve done it—you know, BS’ing the BS’er. Being a leader is more so actions than words. Never make a commitment that you know you can’t make. Be vulnerable. Don’t try and be someone you’re not. Don’t make a promise on something you can’t deliver. If you don’t know the answer, admit it and say, “But you know what, I will find out, and I’ll get back to you right away.”

So, that’s the foundation, and those are the principles for being a good leader, not just in safety but also in anything you do. If you’re true to yourself and you’re true to that, I believe that anybody can be successful as a leader doing whatever he or she needs to do. Always be open to communicate, and be open for feedback. However I lead, it might not be receptive to this group versus this group or this person versus this person, so I have to adjust the way that I deliver. So, communication, feedback, servant leadership, trust, respect—that’s what it’s all about.

Do you have any additional advice that you would like to share with professionals who are maybe looking to pursue a career in EHS and any advice on how they can best make a positive impact once they land a position?

Well, some advice, and this was learned firsthand, is take your time. Don’t puff out your chest and be that safety person who knows it all. Even though I said that that’s what I didn’t want to do, I did do it. Like I mentioned before, you learn the failures by doing them yourself. So yeah, just be yourself. It’s OK to be vulnerable. It’s OK not to have all the answers.

You’re always trying to build partnerships, and it all comes back to a team and achieving that goal. And what that goal is in the construction industry is like this, for example: You have Rosendin that’s the electrical contractor, and we are hired to execute installing the electrical for this building. Other contractors have other parts in that building, whether it’s the concrete, the walls, the lights, the site conditions with your agriculture, the grass, or the fences. Then you have your heating and plumbing and all that stuff. That’s your team, and your opponent is the building. So, this team has to work together in order to defeat the building. We all have to work together to deliver that building. There’s an end user or a client, and you want to deliver it to that person, and you want to do it in a safe and healthy fashion and environment.

If you circle everything that you do and the decisions that you make against what that goal is and what we’re trying to achieve, it simplifies everything else, and you can start dismissing all the other drama that comes up in human interactions. I like to say if you want your drama, watch Gossip Girl or Desperate Housewives or something like that and get your drama. On the job, be yourself, be vulnerable, and build partnerships. That will lead to quicker success.

So, for those either in EHS or in whatever field that they decide to go into, tap into what you know, and tap into what you’re passionate about. When you do that and you find a career path based on that, it’s not going to be work to you; it’s going to be something you get excited for. You wake up, you’re excited for it, and you can’t wait to tackle the challenges of that task and that career path that you’ve chosen.

Again, for me, it’s circling around teams and being part of a bigger goal—same as football. Everyone’s coming together to go win a championship. You’ll have your adversity, you’ll have some near misses, and you’ll have some first aids. Unfortunately, you’ll have other things that pop up, too—that’s adversity. What do you do from that? What do you learn from it, how do you make not just your jobsite but also your company safer, and how do you make the industry safer by what you learn from that incident or that near miss or that opportunity?

For me, it’s safety where I can use my platform and effect change. For other people, it can be something else. But if you’re safety-specific, if you’re passionate about people and you’re passionate about teams, and if you’re passionate about making a difference and being able to make people smile in a stressful situation, I’d say safety’s a great platform and a great career for you to do that.

As East Coast Corporate Safety Director at Rosendin at the young age of 28, Derek Morgan is a rising star and an example to young safety professionals. He joined Rosendin in 2016 and has been promoted 3 times in less than 5 years. He was promoted from Safety Coordinator to Safety Manager in 2018; from Safety Manager to Regional Safety Director in 2020; and, mostly recently, to East Coast Corporate Safety Director in January 2021. Morgan’s ascension at Rosendin is a testament to his value and dedication to his career in EHS.

Morgan obtained his Associate Safety Professional (ASP) certificate in 2018, followed by his Certified Safety Professional (CSP) certificate from the Board of Certified Safety Professionals in February 2020. His goal in 2022 is to be more involved with the American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) DC Chapter.

Morgan received his bachelor’s in safety management from Slippery Rock University. While attending Slippery Rock, he was a student athlete and played 5 consecutive years on the university’s football team, winning four championships in the program. Morgan credits his experience on the football team and at Slippery Rock to the professional success he has accomplished thus far.

FacesEHS_FeatureGraphic, environmental, health, and safety
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