Faces of EHS

Faces of EHS: Josh Schmitz on Empathy and Adaptability

Josh Schmitz worked as a master electrician prior to working in construction safety and health. He also held a few different roles in firefighting and emergency medical services (EMS) before moving into construction after earning a degree in Occupational Safety and Health.

Currently, he works as a safety director for CG Schmidt Inc, a construction manager company that self-performs carpentry, concrete, demolition, and more. CG Schmidt is a family business that values caring above all else and building facilities to improve the lives of others, Schmitz says.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Josh to discuss his biggest safety influence, leading with empathy and communication, and adapting past practices to fit today’s safety standards.

Q: How did you get your start in the field?

Long story short, I started working in construction as an electrician. I really enjoy the challenge and fulfillment of building complex buildings. Little did I know at the time that I was learning some pretty bad habits and working unsafe on a daily basis. I remember the first time I was shocked, it was seen as a rite of passage and celebrated, which is so wrong.

In 2004, I started volunteering with our local fire department. I love helping people and this was a great way to give back. I found myself taking people to the hospital on the ambulance for some of the same shortcuts I was taking on the construction site. A change was needed, and I made that change.

Then I left construction and focused full time in EMS. I returned to school and completed a bachelor’s degree in Occupational Safety and Health, knowing I wanted to come back to construction and help with injury and illness prevention. 

Q: Who has been your biggest influence in the industry?

I have been fortunate in my career and personal life to surround myself with many great people. Our former safety director, Frank Slamar, is my biggest professional influence. Frank retired a couple of years ago. He was a carpenter that when asked by our leadership to advance safety and health in the company didn’t hesitate. He has impacted countless people over his career.

I remember walking on one of our jobsites right after I was hired, a person grabbed me and said, “Is that Safety Frank?” If you worked in construction, there was a good chance you know Frank. He always had a practical way of approaching a challenge and making sure the outcome was successful. Even in his retirement, he impacts us in a positive way each day. 

Q: What’s your best mistake and what did you learn from it?

Coming into this role, I had a good understanding of construction, having worked in it for nearly eight years. I asked people questions about how they did their work when I didn’t know the answer, but I found myself not asking those same questions when I knew how the work was being performed. This left a gap in the conversation.

I now ask questions all the time that I know the answer to or think I know the answer to. Asking questions leads to a conversation and a better understanding of the persons perspective and how they did what they did. I also learned asking how something is done is a completely different question than what are you doing. Asking “how” is a game-changer.

Q: What’s your favorite and least favorite part about working in the industry? Would you change anything? 

My favorite part of construction safety and health is also my least favorite. Every day we are taking portions or entire buildings down and building new ones. This results in constantly changing conditions with a lot of potential for incidents. No two days are ever the same, which makes it exciting, yet challenging. I also love seeing people grow from apprentice to journeyman to foreman and some to superintendent.

Q: How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Company leadership needs to truly care about their people and understand the work that is being performed. Listen to what is going well and be receptive to areas for improvement. The people performing the work are the ones that have the best ideas for ensuring a safe and healthy jobsite, and company leaders have more of an impact than they may realize. I am grateful to work with a great leadership team that pushes us to get better every day. I talk to colleagues with other companies, and some have an uphill battle, which is frustrating. 

Q: Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Or are you seeing any current trends?

There have been many improvements in construction safety and health in the last 20 years and I see it only getting better. Manufacturers are improving tools, equipment, and PPE. I wouldn’t be surprised with how technology has evolved to have a heads-up display on a hardhat that helps identify hazards, shows the Building Information Modeling (BIM), and even play training videos. The possibilities are endless. 

Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic complicated or exacerbated problems with safety culture?

We are good at adapting in construction. No two days are ever the same and we manage change well.  The COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge. I found myself spending more time researching, watching press conferences, and consulting local medical providers on how to best handle the situation based upon the information we had at the time, which seemed to change often.

We stopped meeting in groups, which resulted in challenges with training and good communication. Anti-fog safety glasses were fogging due to face coverings. There were delays in getting material, tools, and equipment. The COVID-19 pandemic made a challenging profession more challenging, but we adapt, learn from it, and continue to move forward. 

Q: How will safety culture look in the future?

People today are growing up with safe work practices engrained in them. It isn’t OK to take a shortcut that could get oneself or another hurt. I joke, but am serious when I say I wore a hard hat and safety glasses longer in my first week with CG Schmidt than I did in nearly eight years as an electrician. I was talking to an electrician apprentice recently about the importance of lockout/tagout. I shared a story with him about how I was shocked by 277 volts working on live electrical. He commented how he heard we used to work on live electrical back in the day and couldn’t imagine doing that. It is wrong today and was wrong back then, the difference is people today are being taught the correct way to perform work and that will continue into the future.  

Q: What are you most proud of?

I love it when a plan comes together! Getting a group of people together, brainstorming, coming up with a solution to a challenging situation, and seeing it executed successfully is amazing. We then take the lessons learned and share it companywide. An individual can literally impact an industry. It’s great to see.  

Q: Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Put yourself in the shoes of the people you are responsible for. If you have the opportunity to work in construction during your summers between college semesters, do it. You need to be able to talk with people. Ask questions, even if you know the answers. You will see many different perspectives based upon the experience level and individual.