SH&E Generations: Ryan Nicholson

GenerationsWe are always looking for ASSE members to share their stories of following a parent into the SH&E profession or having a son or daughter follow in their footsteps of spreading the safety message. Here’s the story of Ryan Nicholson, CSP, a professional member of ASSE’s Quad Cities Chapter.

Safety has been near and dear to my heart since I was a young boy; my dad didn’t give me a choice! My father, Michael C. Nicholson, CHST, has made construction safety his career since 1979. It was in that year when my father applied and accepted a position in safety at the Willow Island, WV, Power Station. The position was created following one of the largest construction accidents in American history when 51 workers lost their lives. Willow Island was a tragedy that wiped out entire families. At 5 years old, it’s not something I clearly remember. However, I do remember the dedication to his work and family that my dad showed and continues to show. He is approaching retirement now after almost 35 years as a safety professional, one of, if not the best in the industry!  Growing up it was always, “Get your safety glasses on when you’re doing that,” “Put shoes on or you’re gonna cut your foot open,” “You should be wearing earplugs,” and “Put your seat belt on!” My father carried the same care for safety he showed us out to the workers in the field. He did it with a plain and simple approach that just won people over and created an attitude of empowerment.

My dad helped me get my first construction job in college as a laborer, with a division of Walbridge-Aldinger, building a couple of large department stores in the Akron, OH, area. At that point, I felt a calling to construction and protecting workers. I began searching local universities for programs that had a safety focus and, at the time, the only local campus with an SH&E program was Cleveland State University. I obtained a degree in Environmental Studies from Cleveland State University. My experience and training increased while working for Morrison-Knudsen (eventually became Washington Group and is now URS) on several large projects in Ohio. My drive to increase my experience in safety just continued to grow. I felt myself wanting to be more involved in the work and helping workers eliminate hazards on the front lines. Over the next 18 years I worked for several other construction contractors in and around Ohio such as S.E. Johnson Cos., Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc. and The Ruhlin Co. It was at The Ruhlin Co. in Sharon Center, OH, where I became the corporate safety director and was supported by Jim Ruhlin, president and CEO. In September 2011, I received my CSP designation. Also in 2011, Ruhlin was awarded the Willow Island Hydroelectric Project by American Municipal Power (AMP) of Ohio. This is a $140-million hydroelectric plant on the Ohio River, 32 years later and less than a mile from where my father began his safety career. That was probably one of the most memorable times for me, being able to see the site where so many lives were tragically impacted and to be able to pray for the continued healing of those families. It amazes me how that incident basically shaped my father’s and my life for what was to come in the future.

Nicholson_SH&ENow, in 2013, my father is planning retirement and I am planning my next safety initiative as the new Westfield Insurance safety manager. Who knows, maybe my son or daughter will be a third generation safety professional. As you can see in the photo, my son Gabe already loves the fit of a hard hat! And, Dad: Congratulations on your retirement and thank you for the example you have set for me and hundreds of other safety professionals!