Faces of EHS, Safety Culture, Training

Faces of EHS: John McHugh on Leading from the Heart

John McHugh’s journey began over three decades ago in the construction industry, where he was immersed in the world of constructing scenery for the Hollywood film industry. Throughout his career, he contributed to the production of numerous feature films, including The Fugitive, Home Alone 1, 2, and 3, as well as U.S. Marshals, among many others.

However, as he became a family man with two young children, McHugh recognized the importance of stability and the desire to be present for moments at the family dinner table each evening. His passion for workplace safety remained a driving force, and so in 2008, he founded a fall protection integration company, Versatile Systems, Inc., with two business partners.

Versatile Systems, Inc. has now become part of the Diversified Fall Protection family. It is now considered a business unit or branch under the DFP umbrella, with approximately 55 team members ranging from certified welders, installers, and structural engineers to sales team. John’s role shifted from CEO and president to his current position, Business Unit Leader or VP of DFP West. 

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with John to discuss how he got his start in the industry, his work with fall protection, and how leaders should build safety culture.

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

I began my career in construction straight out of high school in 1990. My childhood next door neighbor took me under his wing as a young 18-year-old without much direction. Safety was a major part of my early education. In the business we were in, if you didn’t work safely and embrace a safety culture you were not going to last very long.

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

I’ve been blessed with many strong influences in my life and career. In the fall protection industry, there was a gentleman named Dan Ward who had a massive impression on me. He knew fall protection in a way I haven’t seen since. He truly had a passion for this industry and the benefits it had on our workforce.

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

Very early in my fall protection career I gave a fall protection presentation at an ASSE conference in San Diego to a group of safety engineers. The presentation was extremely elementary for the audience; my knowledge of our industry at the time was not at the level it needed to be to give that talk. I feel on my face, but it made me dig in and completely immerse myself in this industry and our work. It forced me to get better because I never wanted to feel that way again.

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

My favorite part about working in this industry is that we can make a massive impact on workplace safety not only with our integrated fall protection solutions but with fall protection training. I’m able to share my knowledge in a way that comes from actual hands-on experience. I’ve used a harness for my work, I understand the challenges the average user is facing because I’ve been through them myself. My least favorite part about working in this industry is the never-ending red tape at times. There are times when common sense does not take precedence. 

Q: Would you change anything? 

Nope, life is divine in my book. Every mistake, wrong turn was a life lesson that I’m forever grateful for!

Q: What are your thoughts on safety culture? How can company leaders make safety a value within their organization?

Truly embody safety and walk the walk. It’s a lot easier when you come from the field and have worked in those unsafe situations. Leadership needs to put themselves in the shoes of the ones at risk. When you try to fake it, they know. Safety culture comes from the heart, it’s not delivered in words. The workers exposing themselves to fall hazards are the backbone of the company and one of its greatest assets. Leaders need to not just say the right thing but feel it. Get out and see what it’s like to be exposed to these hazards daily. Experience the risk of not going home to your family every night for the organization to get its billings out. That’s when safety culture is real. Drop the slogans!

Q: What safety concerns or issues do you think need more prioritization in EHS programs?

I believe real training that is effective needs to be prioritized. There is a lot of check the box type of training these days. Companies may be more concerned with protecting themselves than they are with protecting their people. This has become such a litigious place that companies are more concerned over covering their back sides than providing meaningful effective training. Understanding where the students are coming from and meeting them there. Many of the folks that are exposed to these hazards are not the academic type. They learn in a different way. With hands-on practical training that makes sense to them.

Q: What will be the impact of Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) principles on the EHS industry?

In our work, I feel that governance principles have had the most impact on the EHS industry. Living and working in California we have the pleasure of Cal/ OSHA Title 8. In my experience, bad actors are sought out and punished, really great ones are celebrated. Title 8 has given California businesses a guideline for workplace safety that is higher than anywhere else in the country. If you truly care for today’s workers, you have major appreciation for their work.

Q: How will new safety technologies influence the work being done by EHS professionals?

We are seeing this with the ANSI Z359 changes and improvements over the past decade or so. Most companies that have a very strong safety culture have adopted the use of the most current ANSI Z359 family of standards. This standard is somewhat of a living document and constantly improving how fall protection equipment is manufactured, used, inspected, and trained on. An EHS professional that is current with new ANSI standards is going to be highly skilled at their work and provide the most up to date and safest solutions possible for their workforce. Technology in our industry is constantly getting better. An EHS professional that is staying current with these improvements will always be doing the right thing for the people they work to keep safe.  

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of the overall culture that I’ve built while in my position. It’s a family culture and one that truly cares for each and every individual on our team. One that encourages all our people to look out for one another and keep each other safe. This is a family. We have each other’s backs, and we don’t let each other get hurt!

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

Yes, it would be the same advice I’d give anyone entering any profession. Do it for the right reason. Do it because it jazzes you up, you find yourself in flow state often. Do it because you feel like you’re doing God’s work. Like you were put here for this exact reason, to do this exact thing. Any other reason would be the wrong one.

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