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August 5, 2016

Going the distance

Company: Snyder, and exterior commercial contractor specializing in roofing and waterproofing

Environmental, Health and Safety Director: Russell Nicolai

Workforce: More than 350 employed in waterproofing, and industrial and commercial roofing in Oregon and Washington

What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in workplace safety and health?

Over the course of years as a journeyman roofer and superintendent, I saw too many serious accidents. I did what I could on my own, attending OSHA workshops and trainings, and then asked our union to send me to the University of Washington for OSHA specialized certifications. That led to becoming an OSHA outreach trainer. My initial intent was to connect OSHA training with my roofing knowledge to improve safety for my crew. Around that time, our company signed a very large project that required all foremen to have OSHA 30 training. I was able to step forward as the trainer and my career in safety at Snyder took off. With each new assignment, I was able to influence safety practices on the job, expanding the role of the environmental, health, and safety director. With the support of safety professionals in the construction industry, I have been able to use my roofing expertise to make Snyder a leader in workplace safety.

What is the most important thing you've learned about safety in the roofing business?

You can't do it alone. One person alone cannot bring about fundamental change in an organization that depends on the synchronized work of so many individuals. It's all about the worker. And for the workers, it's all about their families, the Snyder community that we build together, the core values we honor, and the desire to do what is safe for everyone on the job. The building of a safety program must start with a firm foundation, consistent and interactive accountability, and respect. At Snyder, we are committed from the very top of our organization to the bottom. Safety professionals are only caretakers, trainers, and mentors for the workers in the field. Our most important job is to support a culture that recognizes the value of our workers and the work that they do.

How do you measure success?

There are so many ways that we measure success. We study analytics, lagging and leading indicators, lost time, restricted time, and cost. These measures help us improve our work. But what really matters to me – and to all of us in this company – is that everyone goes home every day. That doesn't happen just because we have a safety director. That happens because one person out there on the job values the safety of their co-worker as much as they do their own. And that person takes the necessary steps to ensure that safety procedures are followed. Everyone looks out for everyone else. That's how you know you have a successful safety program.

What advice do you have for other safety and health professionals hoping to make a difference?

If you want to influence an organization, then positively impact the individuals who make up that organization. Encourage workers to know that they can make the best decision for the situations they face. Do this by driving your message about company values, the importance of family, and that safety matters to all of us. Anticipate inherent risks associated with the work and take steps to mitigate danger before it is evident. Learn something new every day. Listen to your workers. The answers to dilemmas often lie in their hands. Recognize it for them and give them the credit they deserve for contributing to their profession.

Russell Nicolai meets with a roofing crew at the Portland Airport

Russell Nicolai, environmental, health and safety director for Snyder, meets with a roofing crew at the Portland Airport to start a hot day's work on the tarmac.

Russell Nicolai

Left: Russell Nicolai

Nicolai and the crew manager collaborate to keep workers safe on the job

Nicolai and the crew manager collaborate to keep workers safe on the job.

Photos: Ron Conrad

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