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Walter Gonzalez

Facility manager for General Electric and senior operations and maintenance manager for Cardinal Cogen, a GE company

His operation is recognized as one of the safest in California, and Gonzalez has shared his knowledge as a mentor in the Cal/VPP process.

Walter GonzalezResume: He has been senior O&M manager for GE Energy since 1994.

Q&A  

What are the top issues in California occupational safety and health today?

There are a lot of things that have been brought up lately. Most common is hex chrome, which is basically coming up as one of the hard-to-monitor issues. Right now it’s important to think of that because it could down the road turn into a chronic issue. Another thing that I see that needs a lot of attention is insulation. There is particle control and the right approach for respiratory protection. The other part is the big hitters, which is fall protection and lead protection as well. Whether addressing it right now, it depends on the people who are addressing it and the level of safety culture that the industry has got and who are the people who are affected and if they are totally aware of the ramifications of not using the right level of VPP [Voluntary Protection Programs] would bring to them.

 

Injury and illness rates continue to decrease, with some exceptions. What's the next great leap forward in occupational safety and health?

Monitoring is basically one of the most important things. If you keep track what your programs are and depending on what the most important risk is of the industry you are in. Everything changes. In one place it could be fall protection and in another repetitive motion. You should be following those trends at the top level.

 

One group -- Hispanics/Latinos -- suffers a disproportionate number of injuries and illnesses. Why? How should California address this problem?

There is a particular part about understanding and comprehension of what the right protections are and how to properly deliver the message to the people in training. Not all Hispanics and Latinos have the same level of education. That is why language used to deliver training needs to be addressed. Sometimes words that are not right words to use need to find a synonym at the right level. A lot people do agricultural work and need to understand hazards with fumigation, for example. What they are supposed to be using and the clothing they should be using. If they should be using gloves, what is the proper way of removing those gloves? How to handle harmful products when applying them. Heat stress. How much time do they spend in the field and what is an electrolyte and why is it important to the body? How much fluid do they need? That is one of the things. A lot of people used to do things in their native country and those countries don’t have a lot of health safety awareness. They come with that level of awareness from their culture.

 

The Injury and Illness Prevention Program is the basic safety requirement for California employers. Now Fed-OSHA is working toward adopting its version of this requirement. Does the California IIPP standard need revision or is it fine the way it is? And if it needs revision, how so?

The standard basically gives you a guideline. That guideline, depending on how deep you want to get into it, you can add to it if want to. Or it can be job specific as you want to the IIPP. It depends on how much you want to include in that document. But I think it is very adequate.

 

 

If you could change anything about Cal/OSHA, what would it be?

                a. Should enforcement be increased?

                b. Communications

                c. Training for inspectors

I would love to see something coming from Cal/OSHA in the public/private partnership with the companies, so they could get training. A train-the-trainer for the sites. Now they have someone they pick up and say you are going to do training for the site. More understanding of what the hazards of the industries are, and that can be shared based on those industry’s SIC codes.

What they have right now, great enforcement communications, they could bring down to laymen’s terms. Sometimes the code is difficult to read. Laymen’s terms are important. Then it is easier to understand what the intent is. They do have great programs like VPP [Voluntary Protection Programs]. That is great.

 

Some observers say injury and illness rates are higher than they appear because employers find ways to hide injuries, or not record them. Do you agree this is a serious problem and if so, how should it be addressed?

It goes both ways. If there is an incentive for maintaining an injury-free workplace, then it might be financial incentives for employees if there are no reportable injuries. So it may be things that create an environment not to report. Or a company has a culture on site that reporting means a better way of learning what they need to do on the site. You can say it brings a different level from a reactive to a proactive way of operating and that shows a lot of integrity within the sites. The next thing should be there is no retaliatory action for reporting.

 

Will AB 2774 resolve the problems cited by DOSH on serious violations and provide a more equitable appeals system? If not, how should it be reformed?

That one is still to be looked at. It depends on the lawyers and who is there to defend themselves. It is just too early to say.

 

Should DOSH approach enforcement with more of an eye toward achieving compliance, rather than looking for violations to cite? And if so, would such an approach work?

I think that a better way of addressing some things is give fair warning ahead of time, as to what the seriousness level is and get them in compliance. And have them show compliance. That goes beyond getting violations. Violations affects more than company morale. It also affects the company with their insurance issues. But if they don’t follow suit, I agree with imposing violations. That goes hand in hand with how knowledgeable people are on site with violations. Like I said earlier, OSHA should provide training for different SIC codes. What they need to look for. There are seminars out there, but they are costly.

 

What should Cal/OSHA do to help small employers create safe workplaces and comply with Title 8 regulations?

Training. I say they do have the consultation program. They should be able to promote that heavily and how many people are within Cal/OSHA staff that can handle that. They are not fully staffed to do that now. The problem comes back to: Do you want a safe workforce or just someone out there? People should lead by example and how you lead is by how much knowledge you have about the safety issue on your sites.

 

What about safety do employers struggle with the most?
It depends. It can be personal protection, not understanding what needs to happen. Employers are always at the mercy of something going wrong. It goes back to how much safety culture is out there.

 

Are there reliable and knowledgeable training people available?

Oh yeah, there are. But the programs are difficult to access. I once offered to provide training in Spanish for hotel people and other laborers and ag fields. There were no takers. That is pretty disappointing. There is a need. Employers do not want it because it incurs cost. They are aware that it adds to the bottom line.

It needs to be advertised by the state, that employees could request training. There should be an 800 line to request it. A letter should go out from Cal/OSHA that an employer’s training is missing or not sufficient at this site, for this or that issue. Rather than send enforcement, so employers just say I need Cal/OSHA off my back.

 

What kind of training is the most crucial for employers to provide?

It all depends on the line of work. The most crucial employer develops a risk assessment for tasks performed on day-to-day basis. That will determine what kind of training they need. Once they do that, they can complete it with a GAP analysis.

 

What else do you read to get your occupational safety and health information?

I rely on Cal/OSHA, on my network, online information and corporate resources. By participating in different associations. You need to be aware and have up-to-date information. And don’t be shy to ask the regulators.

 

How did you get started in safety? Was there any particular experience in your career that triggered your interest in safety? What’s interesting about it? What’s interesting about it now?

I started in 1987. That just came along and it was a niche I liked. I associated safety with industrial processes and how to associate that with protection. I am a mechanical engineer who looks at processes and describes what you need to do to maintain and stay productive and where you can design safety in the process.

 

What’s interesting about it now?

Not seeing accidents on site. People seeing what they need to do and it is second nature. When I see an employee work with equipment, put safety gear on and safety gloves and masks, without me telling them. I know safety is a culture. And it can go way beyond a safety culture, if they are not afraid to tell you it is not safe and stop a job. Safety is not only for you but for everyone around you.

 

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