The OSHA family suffered a huge loss last month when George Yoksas passed away at his desk at age 66. It’s somehow fitting that George died at work, because he had dedicated his life to protecting workers. George would say “safety is our craft”. He’d say this proudly when he was excited that OSHA had made an impact on a company or industry, or out of frustration if we were stuck on figuring out how to abate a hazard or needed some motivation to develop a hard case.
Over the 40 years he spend at OSHA, he made a huge impact on the construction industry within OSHA Region V, particularly as Milwaukee Area Director. He regularly attended Wisconsin AGC meetings around the state, and worked closely with the Wisconsin Underground Contractors Association and the Milwaukee Building Trades unions to ensure construction sites were safe and healthy places to work. After being promoted to an Area Director in Wisconsin, George continued his work with the Chicagoland Construction Safety Council. His work with the Council in the early 90’s was the start of their annual conferences that eventually provided training for thousands of workers and employers over the years.
I was privileged to work with George on Process Safety Management (PSM) issues. His enforcement efforts at refineries such as BP, Shell and Marathon changed the industry in that area. He was on the Industrial Refrigeration Consortium through the University of Wisconsin Madison, developing training courses, resources, sharing practical experiences along with lessons learned.
And he was no hypocrite. He believed that OSHA should meet the same requirements for worker safety that we made employers meet, laying the groundwork for Region V’s safety and health committee, their Safety and Health Management System, and even getting his own office into VPP.
He supported his own employees, defended them when attacked, made sure they had what they needed to do the job and that they were able to take advantage of advancement opportunities.
But he wasn’t all work. George enjoyed woodworking and woodturning. He made (or as he would say – turned) pens for his co-workers and always shared his talent by providing pens to people who retired from the Agency. (I have one of his beautiful pens on my desk right now.) He also made beautiful Intarsia projects. He loved traveling with his wife and always talked about his sons and how proud he was of them. He really enjoyed riding his motorcycle on weekends and enjoyed the many high end cars he owned.
He will be missed.
OSHA lost Dorothy Dougherty — on a happier note — to retirement. Dorothy had too many jobs to name in her 37 years at OSHA and MSHA, but I knew her best as Director of Standards and Guidance, and then as the career Deputy Assistant Secretary for the last several years.
She guided the standards directorate through the difficult Bush years, focusing on guidance and readying the playing field for an administration that really wanted to move forward on protections for workers. Because of her efforts, the Obama administration was able to hit the ground running on OSHA standards like silica and beryllium.
But I got to know Dorothy best while working closely with her in the Assistant Secretary’s Office. OSHA only works as well as the people in the agency. And the people in the agency only work as well as their managers lead. Dorothy arrived in the job at a critical time. The agency was wracked with retirements of it top managers and their deputies who were all reaching retirement age at the same time. We had trouble even getting people to apply for the top jobs, much less finding managers able to take on the enormous responsibilities of running OSHA regions and directorates. Dorothy developed systems — OSHA’s own development process for Senior Executives, Deputy Boot Camp to make sure we had a deep bench, a process for developing administrative staff who wanted to move up in the agency, and a better process for choosing top managers. By the time we left, not only were all the top positions (save one) filled, but we had a full team of deputies and other qualified leaders to staff OSHA’s future.
And I’ll miss Dorothy on a personal level. I had never realized before I got to OSHA how valuable good managers are. Political appointees can chart a direction and set out goals, but it’s the career staff that shows you how to get there, and the good managers that actually make it happen. Good managers aren’t born; they’re made, and we were lucky to have Dorothy there to make the managers that will lead OSHA into the future.
As I said at her goodbye party, if Secretary of Labor Acosta had called me and asked me to tell him one thing that he could do to make OSHA succeed, I would have told him to do anything within his power to make sure Dorothy didn’t retire. Unfortunately, that call never came. The rest is history.