Facilities Workers Break ‘Lost Days’ Record with Focus on Safety

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

Jorge Villalobos is not just passionate about worker safety, he’s obsessed with it. That philosophy has helped The University of Texas at El Paso’s Facilities Services workforce break a record for consecutive days without lost time.

The team broke the 195-day record July 30 and celebrated with a small breakfast reception Aug. 5 at the team’s offices off Sun Bowl Drive, but Villalobos, Ph.D., director of Facilities Services, said he is not as interested in the record as in the attitude of safety that is demonstrated by his 215 employees on a daily basis throughout campus.Members of a Facilities Services paint crew Kenneth Spence, top, and Adolfo Salcedo paint part of Miner Village. Salcedo is on a lift wearing a bump cap, safety glasses and a fall-protection harness. Photo courtesy of UTEP Facilities Services.Members of a Facilities Services paint crew Kenneth Spence, top, and Adolfo Salcedo paint part of Miner Village. Salcedo is on a lift wearing a bump cap, safety glasses and a fall-protection harness. Photo courtesy of UTEP Facilities Services.

He gave credit to his employees in the business, maintenance, operations, and grounds and custodial groups for doing the simple things the right way to avoid the possibility for injury. They include planning ahead, using protective clothing and the right tools, and making the right decisions.

The previous record was set from Nov. 8, 2010, through May 22, 2011, under Villalobos’ watch. Before that, the record was 121 days set in 1999-2000, according to documents from UTEP’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Office, which date back to September 1996.

“We’ve set higher expectations. Our goal is zero lost time. We believe that when you come to work (at UTEP) you should expect to go home in one piece,” said Villalobos, whose own near-death experience at an El Paso jobsite 10 years ago made him a safety hawk.

He was a young engineer working for Shell Oil when he noted a construction crane being operated in an unsafe manner. He decided not to intervene and minutes later, the unsecured crane toppled over and its boom missed him by about 20 feet.

“Thankfully no one got hurt, but it made me realize that you can’t be lukewarm about safety,”
 said Villalobos, who earned his bachelor’s in mechanical engineering and his master’s in civil engineering from UTEP in 1998 and 2006, respectively. He spent 13 years with Shell in management positions before he returned to UTEP in July 2010. He is pleased to note that even minor incidents create a proactive discussion among the facilities crews on how those situations could be handled in the future.

Eduardo “Lalo” Rodriguez, a UTEP technician II who handles heating, ventilation and air conditioning issues, said the facilities workers are proud of their safety achievement and work as a team to maintain that level of excellence.

Rodriguez, who cannot remember any personal “time-lost” injury during his 18 years at UTEP, was dressed the part as he recently inspected the University Library’s air conditioning system. Wearing a “bump” hat (a cap lined with hard plastic), eye protection, mechanical gloves, steel-toed, rubber soled shoes and a long-sleeved navy UTEP shirt with “safety first” stitched on the right sleeve, he said his “uniform” protects him from bumping his head against cast iron pipes, or cutting his hands on sheet metal or an accidental burn against a pipe with a surface temperatures in excess of 350 degrees.   

Samuel Lozoya, a UTEP electrician, is wearing an Arc Flash suit that protects him from a potential arc flash from the switch gear in the Sun Bowl Stadium. The suit is used every time a UTEP electrician de-energizes high voltage equipment. Photo courtesy of UTEP Facilities Services.Samuel Lozoya, a UTEP electrician, is wearing an Arc Flash suit that protects him from a potential arc flash from the switch gear in the Sun Bowl Stadium. The suit is used every time a UTEP electrician de-energizes high voltage equipment. Photo courtesy of UTEP Facilities Services.“We don’t want to be the shop to mess up (and break the streak),” he said. “We look out for one another.”

Robert Moss, assistant vice president of EHS, said that historically, Facilities Services injuries are among the most serious and account for more than half of all the campus injuries. He sent Villalobos a congratulatory email to praise his leadership and recognize the group’s achievement.

“Because of the greater frequency rates within Facilities Services, we pay particular attention to the accidents and causes within this group in order to find opportunities for prevention of accidents. Key to prevention of accidents is the attitudes of management in the department where injuries are found to be most likely.”  

Villalobos gave the most credit to the campus Safety Task Force with members from Residence Life, Facilities Services, Planning and Construction, and Union Services that meets regularly to discuss campus safety issues. 

Arturo Rodriguez, an Air Force veteran and University locksmith for the past four years, is task force chairman. He attributes the current safety success to awareness, training, education, better equipment, and breaking the scourge of overconfidence.

“Our motto is safety above production,” Rodriguez said. “We know the job has to get done, but safety is No. 1.”