Faces of EHS, Safety Culture, Training

Faces of EHS: Gabriel Guzman on Language and Commitment to Safety

Gabriel Guzman started his career in public safety in 1992, working as an EMT and firefighter for various municipalities before transitioning into the private sector industries around 2004. He filled various safety roles, from health, safety, security, and on-site nursing to workers compensation and risk.

He has coached, mentored, and taught in classroom and non-classroom environments along the way, in a variety of safety matters. His career has spanned across different industries from construction, nuclear, automotive, pharmaceutical, education, printing, and other various general industries.

Currently, Gabriel serves as the health, safety, security, and environmental (HSSE) manager for Pegasus Foods, a 350-employee world class frozen foods manufacturing platform company that services numerous channels and customers with a particular emphasis on supporting both large and small brand partners as well as premium private labels for the retail channel.

For our latest Faces of EHS profile, we sat down with Gabriel to discuss lessons learned, a top-down approach to safety, and the importance of overcoming language barriers in training.

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

I wanted a career change, and this seemed to be a good fit. I was asked to be an “on-site nurse” due to my emergency medical background. I was in charge of maintaining workers’ comp claims and managing on the job injuries. The role took off and I was given more and more responsibilities in safety and environmental.

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

There are so many good and knowledgeable safety professionals that I have been blessed and honored to have worked with and alongside. However, I would have to say the biggest influences in my career have been the workers, the people that do the work in whichever industry I was in. They are the ones who have given and attributed to my growth as a safety professional.

Ironically, the ones you are there to support and protect are the ones who teach you the most about how and why you are in the role you are in. I do not believe there is a safety person who can say they did not learn something from the front line, line level employee anywhere. Unless you understand the people, the workers you are assigned to support, the work they do and why they do it, then policy, procedures, regulations and compliance are just words on paper. 

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

I have so many. If I were to choose just one, it would be thinking I knew more than I actually did. Sometimes “we” feel so inclined to be the far most experts in our subject matter that we tend to put pressure on ourselves to know “all “the answers “all” the time. We do not allow ourselves to say, “I don’t know, but I will find out,” or, “I am not sure let me research that and get back with you.”

Earlier in my career, I felt that I had to be “Johnny on the spot” with input or responses to matters of safety, so much so that I placed myself in a predicament that made me look unsure, lost, and at times, inept. As my career matured, I learned it was okay to not know everything but to be resourceful in finding the true correct answers. This led me to be a more competent safety manager as well as a leader.

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

My favorite part of this industry is the dynamic of the ever-changing scenario of the workplace. Just when you think you have seen it all, wham, something new! It keeps this profession interesting. My least favorite is ironically the same thing. Once you have countered a specific mechanism of injury, for example, or set new policies or strengthened existing ones for the tenth time, bam, a new incident. Same injury, just a new way of getting hurt. Back to the drawing board, treading water at times.

Would I change anything? I hope that I am changing things every day I have been doing this job. Or else, why do it?

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

I think safety culture is vital period! It is the cornerstone, and fundamental ingredient to a successful safety program. Without a culture, you have a workplace and program running on pure Luck. Senior leadership teams (SLT) and upper management need to have commitment, total “buy-in,” and not just lip service, not some poster of a CEO quoting a safety slogan, but one who is in tune with the floor employee. An SLT that is engaged and not disconnected with their plant and its employees.

You cannot armchair quarterback safety. It cannot and should not be allowed. Total management commitment from the top down, or nothing. Company leaders need to stop making safety a goal. They need to drive safety as a value, a core value. They need to quit making it a number to reach on a board throughout the plant, or a team dinner of BBQ, but a characteristic value that is part of oneself.

When safety is made a goal, it then becomes attainable, reachable thus once it is reached it becomes less desired, concurred, on to the next mentality. When it is made a core value it becomes driven. It becomes more and more desired, in turn becomes a part of a person’s image, something they have inside them like a mindset. A person who has value, places value in everything they are and do. Leaders need to remember that employees will not care if they don’t care.

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

Communication. Specifically, in language barriers. As the workplace and force become more and more diverse, more and more so do the obstacles of communicating. Language, being one that I have seen over my years of doing safety training, is most common. Being from Texas, language barriers have plagued many industries and safety. I am bilingual but have faced the barrier of language within my native tongue of Spanish.

There are many different dialogues within the Spanish language as with most other languages of the world. Compounded with English being a difficult language to translate due to its many abbreviations, acronyms, and contradictions. It places a strain on the presenter to not get the message lost in translation. Now, more and more people are coming into the work force from all walks of the earth increasing the need to prioritize communication in EHS.

It is increasingly not enough to just have pamphlets, training material, or brochures in a language (Arabic, Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) and expect to overcome the language barrier. Good comprehensive material may need to come in more forms than just script. A lot of workers in the majority of positions in manufacturing or construction have little to no formal education. So, script or written materials are useless. I believe video libraries will need to be the preferred method to challenge this language barrier. Prioritization from EHS and the industries they support will need to invest in avenues that can reach everyone if we want to continue to thrive.  

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

This is a deep subject matter with lots to discuss, but I feel that if ESG is done right and from start to finish it can be most rewarding, both in profit margins and in the eyes of the public. Though it is time consuming and at times a money pit, here is where I feel a good safety culture would play a huge part in the success of an ESG program.

Again, these principles have to start from the top down and have to be a driven characteristic and not a goal. Employees, line level to upper management, would need to want to reduce carbon foot printing by continuously recycling or reducing waste streams. Everyone would have to want to do their part.

EHS leaders would need to weld ESG into the fabric of their safety programs and drive it in the morale of their culture. The safety person would want to take initiative and lead of these principles and guide their workplace to better dividends such as they would lowering incident and costs associated with those. ESG is here and is going to stay. It will be a major factor in companies all over, and the EHS industry and its professionals that are on the leading edge of this wave will be the precursor of what is to come.

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

Wow, good question. I think safety technologies will play an important critical role in how we do our jobs. I feel like everything is good in moderation, and that technologies, especially in safety, can be a great asset. But they need to be closely regulated and governed so that “we” do not become complacent or lazy. “Technology breeds laziness.”

Many great advancements in safety technologies have been introduced into the workplace in the last couple of decades, such as light curtains and automated machines. Automatic run stops and so forth. It has also given the worker a false sense of security. Some of these technologies have inadvertently created a new hazard while alleviating one. A light curtain replaces lockout tagout. Now the worker has a false sense of security that the technology will prevail. This places the worker and the EHS industry on a slippery slope.

Q: What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of being able to be a part of such wonderful things as helping people help themselves to make a good day’s worth of work and being able to go home and share that with their families and friends. There is no better feeling. One of the best jobs I’ve ever had!

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

Always stride, seek, and never yield. Be thirsty for new knowledge, don’t get complacent. Don’t stop building your knowledge base, and career. Build relationships with your employees. Don’t get lost in the office with paperwork, charts, and reports. Get out on the floor, lose yourself in the pulse of the plant. Remember, this is only a job if you confine it to a goal on a chart or some report filed away. It is a career if you embody it, and it becomes a characteristic that helps define you.

There are those who say, I do this or that: That’s my job. Then there are those like me that say, I am a safety professional. That’s what I am.

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