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New health, safety director accepts, relishes challenges

STANFORD -- During the search for a new Stanford University director of Environmental Health and Safety last summer, candidate Larry Gibbs was asked by a faculty search committee member why he wanted to leave Yale University.

"And I thought I had one of the best answers," Gibbs said. "I said, 'I don't.'

"I didn't want to leave Yale," Gibbs said. "I was very happy. I'd just gone through a four-year rebuilding project of the environmental health and safety program there that was, I think, quite successful."

However, the Stanford position proved to be too attractive to Gibbs, who saw enormous potential in a move west: personal and professional growth; numerous challenges; which he says he is eager to face head-on; and "being able to enjoy the outdoors in the winter."

Ironically, another factor that was integral to his decision was the prospect of working with Raymond Bacchetti, who during the search was vice president for planning and management and would have been Gibbs' immediate supervisor.

Just about the same time a formal offer was tendered, new President Gerhard Casper announced a reorganization of the university administration that retired Bacchetti's position. Gibbs was now to report to Barbara Butterfield, vice president for faculty and staff services.

"I would have to say that one of the primary reasons I strongly considered this job, during the interview process, was because of Ray Bacchetti," Gibbs recalled. "But I credit the university with letting me know [about the changes] up front, and I felt confident enough with the new organizational structure and with the (health and safety) program to make the change."

EH&S evolving

Gibbs arrived on Oct. 26 and has spent much of his time familiarizing himself with the university, his own department and the myriad regulations and regulators he must deal with on a daily basis. He also must oversee a changing Environmental Health and Safety organization and philosophy, put in motion by the former director, Tom McBride.

In much the same way that some functions of units such as personnel and undergraduate and graduate studies have been decentralized, the scope of Gibbs' responsibilities extends far from his department, which has about 55 employees and an annual budget of $3.7 million.

In each lab, school and department, line administrators are responsible for health and safety and must work closely with the central Environmental Health and Safety staff.

"It's really an industrial model, to a large degree, where you have a central Environmental Health and Safety group, and then you have the decentralized program managers," Gibbs said. "It will work; I believe the model to be very functional. But when you have organizational changes, you go through different stages of development, and it's in a very young stage at this point.

"The next stage is going to be very critical to its long-term development."

The challenge of nurturing that growth was among the aspects of the job that attracted Gibbs.

"The programs I've been affiliated with in the past [at Yale and at the University of Connecticut] have been more centralized," Gibbs said. "But both the physical layout of those organizations, as well as their organizational structure, lend themselves to a centralized support system."

Wide range of services

Things are a little more complicated at Stanford.

At Stanford, Gibbs has to keep track of health and safety issues on an 8,180-acre campus that includes the Medical Center, numerous labs and research facilities, thousands of residents and, unlike back East, an uneasy set of plates beneath the ground.

Besides earthquake safety, Environmental Health and Safety must address fire safety; radiological and laser safety; industrial hygiene; chemical and biological safety; the correct disposal of chemical, biological and radiological waste; and general physical safety, as well as provide emergency response services.

Gibbs must work closely with many internal committees and panels as well as dozens of federal, state, regional, county and city agencies. Those include the federal and state Environmental Protection Agencies, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the state Department of Health Services and Department of Emergency Services, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and the Santa Clara Fire Marshal's Office.

Regulations concerning labor, fire safety, hazardous waste, radioactivity, earthquake safety, and air and water pollution must be monitored and obeyed in not just labs but offices, classrooms and residences.

And Gibbs knows that however well he does his jobs, there will be critics - ranging from Stanford's neighbors to faculty members in labs who resent intrusion by Environmental Health and Safety staffers.

That comes with the territory, Gibbs said.

"Even if you have the cleanest incinerator in the world, it's still an incinerator," Gibbs said. "And the perception that it brings to some people is something that has to be addressed. In fact, I think we do have one of the cleanest operating incinerators here. . . but, when you see a white trail coming out of it, you don't necessarily realize that it's water vapor."

So, community relations will be among his priorities.

"We are part of a community here," he said, "and within the whole issue of the environment, there's a growing need to be able to communicate with and interact with people on how these [health and safety] risks are managed, so that people are not acting on those misperceptions that easily arise."

Regulatory dilemma

Gibbs outlines the role of Environmental Health and Safety as a crucial "support service to the primary mission of the university, namely education and research."

"In that context, however, what the typical client or researcher or staff person will see are almost two sides, two main elements in our program," Gibbs said. "One is that our primary responsibility, as public health and environmental health professionals, is to identify and manage those professionally acknowledged health and safety risks."

The other important role played by Environmental Health and Safety, as Gibbs sees it, is to identify and manage regulatory risks.

Many times, the two can act as acid and base.

"There are times when managing the regulatory risks will also address any professional health and safety risks in that arena," Gibbs said. "However, there is also - and this is becoming more and more common - the case when the regulatory risks far outweigh what is known as a scientifically deduced health and safety risk."

This can be frustrating, not only for Gibbs and his staff but also for their "clients."

"I hear it all the time," Gibbs said. "My professional colleagues throughout the country are all encountering the same difficulties of trying to appropriately balance the amount of regulatory risk an institution can run, which is solely a regulatory risk" and has a negligible impact on actual risk reduction." This doesn't necessarily conform to the concept of directly supporting the educational and research mission of the university.

"One of the interesting things about this is that science researchers are deductive reasoners," Gibbs said. "They use scientific logic and apply principles of nature to issues, and when you attempt to apply this to the regulatory development process, it doesn't necessarily follow that regulations and regulatory development evolve from the same laws of science. In fact, they don't."

So while the researcher in the lab may be driven crazy by paperwork and bureaucracy, Gibbs said everyone involved should accept the fact that the regulations are there for a reason.

"We have to understand that we live in a democratic society," Gibbs said.

He explained that regulation on environmental issues usually is affected by three variables:

  • Scientific risk assessment.
  • Politics. "Politics are involved in any regulation; they are the outcome of the political process," Gibbs said.
  • Social value. "This variable is very much attuned to the political value. It is very much of importance to realize that we live in a democratic society where the social values of the community translate into political action and have a great deal to do with the types of regulations.

"We're left with somewhat of a dilemma, one in which regulations may not, on the surface, appear to make a lot of sense in terms of the scientific risks that they're managing, or the actual risks that we're managing, but they are on the other hand the result of a democratic process," Gibbs said. "One of the fundamental challenges lies in the fact that academic institutions' facilities and operations are treated no differently than industrial corporations when health and safety regulations are enforced by oversight authorities.

"The academic environment is not immune from the regulations, and this creates great difficulty for many individuals, who have not previously felt the impact of outside agencies in their work areas," Gibbs said.

Enjoying the campus

While Gibbs is settling into his new job, he plans to continue developing an injury and illness prevention program started by McBride that intentionally carries the acronym TRICK. The program is designed to enable Stanford to comply with the provisions of state law SB 198, the Injury and Illness Prevention Act of 1990.

"The 'trick' to implementing this is that every supervisor must understand and implement the five key elements: Training, Reporting, Inspecting for hazards, Correcting hazards and Keeping records.

"One of the first things we're going to do is set up additional interaction sessions with supervisors to help them better understand the law, to discuss what their responsibilities are under this regulation," and to discuss what Environmental Health and Safety can do to help supervisors in this area, Gibbs said.

He also is in the process of meeting with the hundreds of people he will be dealing with, both on and off campus.

"I think it's very important that we meet and that I gain a good understanding of what their concerns are, what the issues are, so I can provide the best direction and guidance to Stanford as its programs evolve to address the regulations," Gibbs said. "It's critical to have good working relationships with the regulatory agencies and the people who represent those agencies.

"It's also important to have a good understanding of what their responsibilities are, because they are responsible to the citizens of the state as public officials."

He also hopes to diminish the perception that Environmental Health and Safety is primarily concerned with chemicals, laboratory animals and brushfires.

"There's much more to it," Gibbs said. "Oftentimes, people only look at the use of chemical, biological and radioactive materials . . . those issues are of health-related concern, but we sometimes lose sight of the safety aspect. Increasingly at the university, one of the major issues is basic safety" - including repetitive trauma, on-the-job injuries, back injuries and more.

So the secretary who develops carpal tunnel syndrome is essentially as valid a customer of Environmental Health & Safety as the researcher who spills acid in the lab.

"Our goal is to prevent incidents and accidents from occurring in the first place," Gibbs said. "That applies to every individual - faculty, staff, students and visitors."

When not facing challenges on the job, Gibbs is house-hunting and getting to know the university and the surrounding communities better. He and his wife are renting a house in Los Altos while looking for something more permanent. His son and daughter, both grown, remain back East.

"I've probably been to at least 30 different campuses throughout the country," Gibbs said. "I believe this is one of the most beautiful - no, it's the most beautiful - campus in the country, and I'm very pleased to be here.

"I'm looking forward to working with everyone, and I really believe that the Environmental Health and Safety program here can be the leader in the country."



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