October 2010

Labor College Grad Brings Honed Safety Skills to OSHA Position
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Brian Wood has always been an ardent promoter of safety on the jobsite, and now he has the paper to prove it. The Terre Haute, Ind., Local 725 member recently earned his bachelor's degree in labor safety and health from the National Labor College.

Now the 10-year member is taking his practical know-how and academic cred to the next level with a new job as a labor liaison for the Occupational Health and Safety Administration's regional office in Kansas City, Mo. His prime task will be to work as a bridge between OSHA and area labor leaders to provide trainings and meet the needs of groups representing workers in Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri. Wood is the first Labor College graduate and only the second IBEW member to get hired by OSHA for such a position.

"I do what I do because I care deeply about people having a right to go home in the same condition that they came to work in," said Wood, 38. "It's as simple as that. But safety means the world to countless men and women who face danger on the job every day."

Wood knows this all too well.

In 2007, he was working as a journeyman wireman at an oil refinery on a project which required frequent use of a scissor lift. One morning, he "tied on" to the lift—securing himself inside the device with a lanyard—then raised the device about 20 feet in the air along the side of a building so he could reach the outer edge of the rooftop to pull wire. But a malfunction with the lift's alarm system failed to alert Wood that one wheel had rolled over a large hole in the dirt below, leaving the mechanism unsteady. As Wood walked from one end of the lift's platform to the other, the machine began to pitch sideways as the unstable wheel rolled into the deep hole.

As the lift began to tumble, Wood couldn't reach his lanyard on the other side of the lift to detach himself. His only option was to quickly grab onto an overhead steel beam before the lift capsized. Balancing precariously in the air with the weight of the lift pulling downward, Wood called out to a nearby co-worker who was able to help him out of the restraints.

Had the lift crashed to the earth with Wood tethered inside, it could have been disastrous.

"That was an early incident that made me passionate about safety," Wood said. "If I could have unhooked myself from the lift before trying to tie on to the roof, I would never have been in danger. But since the job required me to be tied off 100 percent of the time, I got stuck inside."

Wood used lessons gleaned from the near miss to address the practices of tying on and off in his senior thesis. Reading the 30-page analysis of an industry-wide standard, one gets the sense that a serious intellect and streak of advocacy inform Wood's sense of what safe jobsites require, even when that means challenging long-held beliefs of what constitutes best practices.

"Brian's an impressive guy," said Ruth Ruttenberg, Ph.D., Wood's advisor at the Labor College. "He took what was a personal near-death experience and put the academic framing around it to address a challenge in the industry."

Ruttenberg—an economist who has taught full-time at the NLC for nine years—said trade unionists are the best people to enforce and advocate for safety laws.

Wood's hiring is a signal of continuously improving relationships between the Labor Department and unions since President Obama's election two years ago. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis—an Obama appointee—spoke at the Labor College's 2009 commencement and told the graduating class that she is creating more than 600 jobs in her department and hopes to hire NLC grads to fill some of those spots.

That makes Wood one of labor's pioneers in taking on a very large mission. Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa all have right-to-work laws on the books.

"We hated to see him go, but we knew it was the best thing for the industry," said Local 725 Business Manager Todd Thacker, who earned his degree in union leadership in administration from the NLC in 2008.

Wood was awarded outstanding apprentice honors in 2005, moving quickly up the chain to serve as a business representative. Wood served in the Navy Reserve from 1990 to 1993 and in the National Guard for three more years.

"I'm very fortunate, and I'm very committed to this," Wood said. "I hope to make as much as an impact as I can on the continued health and safety of workers."

Terre Haute, Ind., Local 725 member Brian Wood, third from right, is the first National Labor College graduate hired by OSHA to serve as a labor liaison.