A Scout's eye for safety

Commissioner: Labor and industry chief Robert Lawson is used to going "into the hopper right from the get-go."

August 03, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh | Stacey Hirsh,SUN STAFF

You begin your first day on your new job with a briefing about the balloon ride that left passengers trapped 200 feet above Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Then, it's off to meet your staff. Then, down to the harbor for media interviews about how your department is going to investigate the balloon accident that made national news.

Welcome to work, Robert L. Lawson.

That's how Lawson began as state commissioner of labor and industry. While first days on a new job can be stressful in any event, his first day was July 19 - two days after a tourist balloon at Port Discovery children's museum left 16 passengers stranded above the skyline for nearly two hours. His office, which oversees amusement parks and rides in Maryland, is responsible for investigating the accident.

"It was certainly focused for the first few hours," Lawson recalled during an interview last week. He called his first day on the job "exhilarating."

James D. Fielder Jr., secretary of the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, said the state was seeking "a top, seasoned professional with experience in the private sector." On paper, Lawson seemed a perfect fit, Fielder said, and the department knew that it "would need someone that could hit the ground running."

The balloon incident wasn't the first time Lawson was thrown into a flurry of activity on a new job.

In 1981, on his first day as a safety coordinator at Potomac Electric Power Co., Lawson said, he was assigned to investigate a power plant fire from the previous week that had trapped workers on a 900-foot smokestack under construction. No one was injured in that fire.

"It was kind of into the hopper right from the get-go," Lawson recalled.

Lawson - who attended the University of Maryland but never earned his degree - worked nearly 20 years for what is now Northrop Grumman Corp. at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, as an engineer technician and later as a safety officer. He left in 1981 to work at Pepco as general safety services manager and went on to become the power company's safety and health coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic.

Lawson, who was born and raised in Maryland, took early retirement from Pepco in 2001. Early retirement meant a consulting business and then a part-time job as safety manager for Bowie in Prince George's County, where he worked on a risk management process that included instructions on what to do in a hurricane.

"The depth and the comprehensiveness of his analysis was something that was so appreciated from our staff, and I just can't say enough good things about him," said John Fitzwater, assistant city manager for Bowie.

One worry Fitzwater did have the entire time Lawson worked for him was that another agency or company would try to steal him away. Along came the state of Maryland.

"When he called me into the city manager's office and made the announcement, my heart sank," said Fitzwater, who describes Lawson's demeanor at work as "businesslike" and said he doesn't think, "in my wildest expectations, that I'm going to find anybody that's remotely as good or as qualified as he was."

At age 61, Lawson said his deep experience and interest in workplace safety stretches back before his jobs at Northrop and Pepco to his experience rising through the Boy Scouts, earning First Aid and safety merit badges and later acting as a counselor for others getting their merit badges.

One of Lawson's scoutmasters was an executive at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration with an interest in safety, he said, and that interest rubbed off. "It was a case where somebody's enthusiasm left a mark," Lawson said.

At the Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, Lawson hopes to leave his mark overseeing employment standards, occupational safety and health, wage and safety inspection programs, and the safety of Maryland's railroads, amusement rides and traveling amusement parks.

He also hopes the HiFlyer balloon ride, operated by the nonprofit Balloon Over Baltimore Inc., will someday be back in service. His office's investigation is expected to take at least two months, increasing the likelihood the balloon will not fly again this season.

"We do not want to get a reputation as problematic for tourists when they come on board," said Lawson, who also sits on the board of directors for the Chesapeake Region Safety Council Inc., a chapter of the National Safety Council.

And in his new role, Lawson is also hoping that workers change the way they act at work - and at home - by thinking of safety first.

"The one thing I would say with great confidence is that he brings more to the table in this position, from the background of hands-on experience and knowledge, than any commissioner in the history of labor and industry," said Cody Godman, president of the Chesapeake Region Safety Council, who has known Lawson six years.

Bowie's Fitzwater agreed: "I know he's going to do a great job, and I know the state is going to be a safer place with him being there."

Sun staff researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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