Healthcare Heroes: Empowered to Put Safety Above All

by Amber Jurgensen & Lindsey Erb

With the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare workers everywhere are being honored. Gerdau also has healthcare heroes. To recognize their efforts in our principle safety above all, we have put together a special "Empowered to" ongoing feature about some of our Gerdau nurses and safety professionals. Please check back as we update this page with more features.

Trish McLeod
Trish McLeod is a nurse at the Gerdau Manitoba mill.

TRISH MCLEOD

In addition to being a nurse for 30 years, seven of those at the Gerdau Manitoba mill, Trish is also a bit of a thrill seeker. She's spent a decade kickboxing and has even jumped out of a plane. Although she isn’t physically at work currently because of a medical condition, she continues to monitor the COVID-19 pandemic for Gerdau and still has advice and words of encouragement on safety for Gerdau employees. 

What inspired you to become a nurse?

I was always told I had a caring and empathic aura. People tend to open up to me. The physiology of the human body and medical mysteries have always fascinated me.

What do you like most about being a nurse?

Making a difference in people’s lives. Walking the path with them to find successful outcomes. Helping patients find comfort when they are distressed. Gerdau has provided me with countless opportunities to learn daily in my role of occupational health nurse. I find it so rewarding to pass my knowledge onto others.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic and the role you play in keeping employees safe?

Currently, I am physically out of the workplace due to a medical condition, but I am monitoring the situation from home. Our Manitoba team has done an outstanding and successful job to keep our employees safe with all the appropriate pandemic measures, including taking temperatures, physical distancing of desks, increasing cleaning/disinfecting, ensuring appropriate PPE is available, working from home when it is feasible, making 3D straps for masks and so much more. It has been a massive undertaking and up to this point we have done well. It couldn’t be done without the cooperation of all employees. Kudos to our HR Manager for leading way. Rave to corporate Gerdau for frequent and pertinent updates.

Nurses must stay on top of emerging pathologies and competencies in terms of best practice.  We must educate ourselves to be aware of the epidemiology of the virus and the regulations coming from the province to communicate these factors to keep our employees safe. We need to also remember to use common sense, to remain calm in a time of uncertainty.

An example of one of the initiatives I took was to obtain a UV light sterilizer for some of the medical center equipment. It kills 99.9% of pathogens and has made a significant difference when it comes to disinfecting measures. I would be honored if my family, friends and co-workers view me as a trusted role model and respected leader as I have worked hard, but haven’t we all? The privilege is sincerely mine if the people within my path feel the same confidence and empowerment from any advice I may have offered.

In the news, we’ve seen a lot of parades and pizza parties for healthcare workers from caring citizens. Those are very touching gestures, but what is something different people can do for nurses and other healthcare workers to show their appreciation?

Any type of recognition that the challenging work we do is valued is greatly appreciated and goes a long way.

What advice do you have for people as states/provinces start to loosen restrictions and reopen?

Do we know the long -term effects of COVID-19? This virus is mysterious; it seems to take many forms, producing a variety of symptoms. I feel we need to be extremely cautious to mitigate the risks. Do we truly feel confident children/daycares/schools and workplaces are relatively safe from this illness with our current measures? Clusters of COVID-positive workplaces and childcare centers are still emerging. It’s important to listen to trusted specialists treating the illness. The front-line care givers and scientists. History has taught us that viruses mutate. Will the coronavirus mutate? We can’t let our guard down. We must remain diligent with physical distancing and disinfecting.

There is a lot of worry and anxiety around the pandemic. How important is mental health in addition to physical safety measures? What are ways people can manage stress during this time?

Extreme change can cause trauma. This is an unprecedented time of uncertainty. I would suggest introspective mental health strategies such as mindfulness to rediscover and embrace who we are on the inside. Make the most of our time in isolation or quarantine with meditation and breathing exercises.  Research anxiety/change coping online, utilize EAP and counselling services. Decluttering/cleaning our homes and workspaces to create order in our environment. We go outside, we take baby steps to fitness, we eat healthy but don’t deny ourselves some of life’s little pleasures. Change comes is small but constant doses.

Cultivate new thoughts by abandoning the old, dedicated to creating new habits, new customs, the new normal. Use creativity, humor or silliness for distraction. Keep up to date with new developments in the pandemic to feel empowered with knowledge. Awareness releases the spectre of fear. Most importantly, to manage stress we promote our social connections by reaching out to our friends, family and co-workers.

One of our Gerdau Principles is safety above all: no business result is more important than people’s lives. How do you live that principle every day, both at work and outside of work?

I do my best to recognize risk and openly discuss it whether at work or home. I believe if we invest in safety, we will remain sustainable, healthy and alive. To empower each other, communication and action is required. We all wear many hats at Gerdau, and I see firsthand how safety is the biggest hat we all wear. I am empowered to obtain knowledge and communicate but I am empowered by safety above all.

Lynda Verhelst
Lynda Verhelst is a nurse as the Gerdau Wilton mill.

LYNDA VERHELST 

Lynda Verhelst got her nursing license when she was 21, and she has worked at the Gerdau Wilton mill for the past 6 year. She has been a nurse more years of her life than not—33 years. In addition to caring for her patients, she loves caring for her family: she has 14 grandchildren from her two sons, daughter, and niece.

What inspired you to become a nurse?

The desire to help others in a meaningful way.

What do you like most about being a nurse?

Being able to make a difference in someone’s life.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic and the role you play in keeping employees safe?

This has been a very stressful time with long hours, but we are all in this together. We are constantly monitoring every day for new information and ways to keep our employees and environment safe. We have become a more cohesive unit because of the pandemic. We are all working together to get through these difficult times as safely as possible while continuing to fulfill our essential role in the steel industry. I worry every day for my friends and coworkers on the front line at the hospitals; but I also worry every day about keeping the Gerdau family safe. I am so thankful for the temperature scanner—it has made that new facet of my job so much easier.

In the news, we’ve seen a lot of parades and pizza parties for healthcare workers from caring citizens. Those are very touching gestures, but what is something different people can do for nurses and other healthcare workers to show their appreciation?

Follow the rules! It makes things so much easier for the healthcare providers. If people want to do something more personal send a note, let them know they are truly appreciated.

What advice do you have for people as states/provinces start to loosen restrictions and reopen?

Take it slow! Be cautious and be prepared for change that may be permanent. People are so eager to get back to “normal.” At this point, we do not really know what normal is, and I believe we won’t for a while.

There is a lot of worry and anxiety around the pandemic. How important is mental health in addition to physical safety measures? What are ways people can manage stress during this time?

Mental health is huge! Our mental health has a profound effect on our physical health, and it must not be ignored. There are many ways to manage stress:

  1. Talk with those close to you.Use technology to decrease isolation, like Facetime and Zoom.
  2. Use this time to complete tasks at home you usually don’t have time for.
  3. Take up a stay-at-home type hobby.
  4. Implement deep breathing exercises and/or meditation.
  5. Most of all, be kind—to yourself, our loved ones, our friends and neighbors, our fellow man.

One of our Gerdau Principles is safety above all: no business result is more important than people’s lives. How do you live that principle every day, both at work and outside of work?

I follow the rules! (Both before and after the pandemic.) Simple things like:

  1. I always wear my seat belt.
  2. I drive the speed limit and obey traffic laws.
  3. I do not enter the mill without all of my PPE including my chin strap.
  4. I quarantine myself once I go home—only make essential trips and wear a mask.
  5. I treat others with kindness and respect.  
Michelle Bond
Michelle Bond is a nurse at the Gerdau Midlothian mill.

MICHELLE BOND

Michelle has been at the Gerdau Midlothian mill for three years and has been a nurse for 12 years total. Much of her nursing experience has been in an emergency department and administration. A fun fact about Michelle is she can ride a unicycle.

What inspired you to become a nurse?

My inspiration to become a nurse didn’t develop until I started working in the dental field. I actually took a position in a dental office as an office manager. I had absolutely no desire to be in healthcare but as time passed I had to fill in at times assisting the dentist with procedures. To my surprise, I loved it. It was so much fun working with patients and the dentist in that aspect. So then I became a dental assistant and did that for a few years. Then I got bored with teeth and decided to broaden my scope of practice to the rest of the body. Next thing I knew I was off to nursing school.

What do you like most about being a nurse?

I can’t narrow down one thing I like most about being a nurse because I really love it all. Besides the relationships and influences you make with patients and their loved ones, I really love the new challenges that present during one’s career. I am always learning something new. It seems that this is the perfect precursor to the COVID pandemic.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic and the role you play in keeping employees safe?

So my role in this current place and time we are living in, oh my, where to start? Well some of it is very simple: continuing to promote and emphasize the practice of preventative measures. Education is key, keeping the information fresh and try to not allow complacency. I have been the COVID-19 resource (in lack of better terms) for our plant. I’ve been trying to keep up with the latest recommendations and guidance regarding this virus. I have been logging and following up with everyone that has called in or went home sick. And everyone that has had recent travel. We are doing our best to prevent any kind of outbreak at our site, and so far we have been blessed.

In the news, we’ve seen a lot of parades and pizza parties for healthcare workers from caring citizens. Those are very touching gestures, but what is something different people can do for nurses and other healthcare workers to show their appreciation?

There has been an outpouring of support to our healthcare workers, and it is nice to see. What I find the most meaningful is a simple “thank you for all that you do” when I’m walking past someone in the hall. That will always put a smile on my face. It is also important to remember that healthcare are not the only essential workers. When I go to a grocery store I always recognize and let them know how much I appreciate their service.

What advice do you have for people as states/provinces start to loosen restrictions and reopen?

My advice as the country is to open; be diligent with hand hygiene, respiratory etiquette and social distancing. And to be extra precautious when or if we are around those over 65 years old and those with health problems.

There is a lot of worry and anxiety around the pandemic. How important is mental health in addition to physical safety measures? What are ways people can manage stress during this time?

There are many people that are experiencing anxiety and mental anguish regarding this virus. And to be honest I saw myself going down that road as well. Then I realized that I was watching way too much TV/news. I started to scale back from that and focus on getting my information from reputable sites. I also turned to my loved ones in my life for support.

One of our Gerdau Principles is safety above all: no business result is more important than people’s lives. How do you live that principle every day, both at work and outside of work?

Of course I support and believe in the principle of safety above all. I have had to make some tough decisions regarding sending people home to quarantine. Even though I knew this created some hardships in the work area, I knew it was the right thing to do. I was amazed how Gerdau’s leadership has supported all my decisions and has really backed me up. I am allowed so much autonomy and feel so respected working for this company. So blessed to have this dream job.

Caitlin Lee is an EMT and safety specialist at Gerdau
Caitlin Lee is an EMT and Safety Specialist at the Gerdau Fort Smith mill.

CAITLIN LEE

Caitlin started at the Gerdau Fort Smith mill as an EMT contractor for Allied, and she worked with the safety team to design an onsite EMT program. When a safety specialist position opened up two years ago, she was offered the job. Lee has a 1-year-old and what she calls a small petting zoo: two dogs, a cat, a turtle, a rabbit, a potbelly pig and three sheep. In addition to being an EMT, she’s a brown belt in Kempo/Gung-fu and qualified for the 2008 Olympics in martial arts.

What inspired you to become an EMT?

I come from a family of nurses and was raised to help people when they needed it most. I learned I excel in emergency medicine and took that route to get my EMT license.

What do you like most about being an EMT?

Trust is what I like most. My patients give their whole trust in me to ease their pain and help them heal. That level of trust is not easy to give out, and being granted that is very rewarding.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being an EMT during the COVID-19 pandemic and the role you play in keeping employees safe?

I am so thankful I work for a company that reacted so quickly and full force to this virus. The nurses of Gerdau, the safety managers and specialists, and so many more have been collaborating since day 1 to write protocols, design and implement screening locations, and essentially redesign the new normal for our employees. Some long hours and stressful moments have materialized into mitigating as much risk of the virus as possible and encouraging the health and safety of our employees. Every facet from no-touch thermometers to staggering shifts and social distancing has become the new normal to face this pandemic head on and empower our employees to take their health into their own hands with the guidance from Gerdau.

In the news, we’ve seen a lot of parades and pizza parties for healthcare workers from caring citizens. Those are very touching gestures, but what is something different people can do for other healthcare workers to show their appreciation?

Helping to stop the spread of the virus and empathy are the pinnacle things you can do to show appreciation to the front-liners. They’re overwhelmed and tired due to patient load and stress. It can be so difficult to walk into one patient’s room who may be dying and need comfort and five minutes later walk into the next room cheerful and greeting. Be understanding. Don’t snarl or stare at a nurse who is pumping gas or getting groceries in her scrubs. She may be perfectly clean prior to her shift, or perhaps she is off her shift and her scrubs have been covered in PPE all day. They’re doing the best they can without judgment.

What advice do you have for people as states/provinces start to loosen restrictions and reopen?

If you don’t feel safe or are a member of the compromised population, stay home. Just because the states are opening up doesn’t mean you have to rush out and join the crowds. Continue practicing social distancing with your cloth masks if you do go out, continue ordering groceries and food to-go, and stay home if your health and safety are at risk.

There is a lot of worry and anxiety around the pandemic. How important is mental health in addition to physical safety measures? What are ways people can manage stress during this time?

The longer quarantine lasts, the more impactful mental health will become. Humans are inherently social creatures and crave companionship. Lacking those may cause some to delve into dark places. You have to learn your negative thoughts or behaviors and self-trigger. Take a walk, do a yoga class online, paint, whatever it is you do that brings you joy – do it! And if those don’t work, seek further care. There is absolutely no shame in taking care of your mental health, just as you would do for your cardiac or pulmonary health.

One of our Gerdau Principles is safety above all: no business result is more important than people’s lives. How do you live that principle every day, both at work and outside of work?

SafeStart has truly embodied safety above all into useable terms. Whether I’m walking through the plant doing an audit or driving home from work, I self-trigger multiple times a day: “Be sure to keep your mind on task” as I approach an overhead crane. “Don’t forget to keep those eyes on task” as I ignore my phone ding for a text message in the car. And truly, as the safety specialist, I’m viewed as the role model. If I’m not practicing what I preach and consider safety top priority, then I am in the wrong business.

Nicholas Wojtow is a nurse as the Gerdau St Paul mill.
Nicholas Wojtow is a nurse as the Gerdau St Paul mill.

NICHOLAS WOJTOW

Nicholas has been at the Gerdau St Paul mill as a nurse for 3 years. After living in Missouri, Colorado and California, he now calls Minnesota home. He has twin boys, Braden and Hansen, 6, and is an Eagle Scout.

What inspired you to become a nurse?

My inspiration to become a nurse was a personal one simply based on my desire to choose a career where I could directly make a difference in people’s lives and overall well-being.

What do you like most about being a nurse?

I’ve always enjoyed the people aspect of my job. Seeing individuals at their worst and their best. Helping people and families journey through overwhelming and debilitating diagnoses and being able to make a difference in their recovery is very rewarding. The collaborative and team aspect of delivering healthcare nowadays is also very rewarding, and working with other healthcare providers like doctors and therapists creates an environment of constant learning and acquisition of new skills and knowledge. Moreover, my time with Gerdau as an occupational health nurse has been one of the most rewarding and exciting jobs I’ve had in nursing. It has been such a unique experience, one in which I’ve been able to acquire skills I never would have outside of a manufacturing or heavy industry environment.

Can you tell us a little bit about your experience being a nurse during the COVID-19 pandemic and the role you play in keeping employees safe?

This coronavirus pandemic has affected everyone differently. This is true as well for nurses. Some nurses are on the frontlines in direct contact with infected individuals doing everything they can to prevent people from dying. Others, like me, are in roles where we are doing our best to prevent the spread of infection and keep people working safely in essential industries like steel. The dissemination of knowledge has played a key role in achieving that. Educating employees on signs and symptoms, staying abreast of CDC and other health agency guidelines, and offering practical steps one can take to stay healthy and safe make a huge difference in “flattening the curve.”

At the mill level here in St. Paul, we have put in place detailed engineering and administrative controls as well as focused safe work practices. These include but are not limited to: increased sanitization and cleaning practices, updated PPE requirements, established quarantine/LOA protocols, social distancing measures, daily tracking of symptomatic employees and call offs, roll out of high tech products such as temperature and tracking bracelets, and non-contact employee temperature taking and screening for all people coming and going.

In the news, we’ve seen a lot of parades and pizza parties for healthcare workers from caring citizens. Those are very touching gestures, but what is something different people can do for nurses and other healthcare workers to show their appreciation?

I think the general public can show gratitude and appreciation for healthcare workers by simply staying informed and helping mitigate the spread of infection by following sensible social distancing, wearing of masks, and reducing exposure to themselves and others. I think it’s also important to realize that the economic implications of lockdowns for our country are affecting people as much or more so than the actual virus. Supporting local businesses and restaurants are just as important as supporting healthcare workers. Those UPS and FedEx drivers and grocery store employees that are keeping some semblance of an economy going are saving just as many lives indirectly as nurses and doctors. Economically, we are all in this together! 

What advice do you have for people as states/provinces start to loosen restrictions and reopen?

As the country reopens and lockdowns are lifted, the health and safety measures remain the same. Common sense social distancing, wearing of masks out in public, and focusing on one’s health and safety at home and in public will continue to be the best tools available to keep this virus at bay until it goes away or things like herd immunity or a vaccine are achieved.

There is a lot of worry and anxiety around the pandemic. How important is mental health in addition to physical safety measures? What are ways people can manage stress during this time?

This is a great question and like so many times an often overlooked aspect of health and well-being. These are stressful times for so many people on so many different levels. From financial insecurity, to disruptions in childcare, to the loss of social interaction, most everyone on some level has been affected. Stress and anxiety not only affect our mental health but also our physical health. As we approach summer, it’s a great time to get outside and enjoy nature and activities that give us purpose and satisfaction. Sunshine increases vitamin D, an important factor in fighting off illness. Exercise and activities like yoga can help reduce stress and nurture mental health. Maintaining social interaction is a lot easier nowadays with things like Facebook and Zoom. Sometimes mental health effects are more pronounced and difficult to manage for some of us, requiring pharmaceutical or medical intervention. Not being embarrassed or feeling ashamed and seeking out therapy or the advice of a medical doctor is important and having support from family or friends and coworkers. I’d like to remind all of our employees the wonderful benefits and resources Gerdau offers as a company.

One of our Gerdau Principles is safety above all: no business result is more important than people’s lives. How do you live that principle every day, both at work and outside of work?

As a health and safety professional and nurse, I’ve been so proud of my time here at Gerdau and specifically our St. Paul Mill and the many ways we put safety above all. I feel it’s not just a catch all, feel good phrase but truly a part of our culture and mindset. This pandemic is another great example of putting that into practice. The teamwork, collaboration, and support at every level has been phenomenal. The financial commitment as an organization has been pivotal as well, especially in these trying economic times.