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Environmental Health and Safety’s Wheaton retires

Jun. 7, 2018, 9:44 AM

Bob Wheaton, center, is retiring as director of Vanderbilt Environmental Health and Safety. With Wheaton at a party celebrating his career were Judson Newbern, MA, and Mary Yarbrough, MD. (photo by Steve Green)

If you chat with Bob Wheaton, executive director of Vanderbilt Environmental Health and Safety, for a few minutes, it quickly becomes clear he’s not from around here.

Although he’s been living in Nashville and working at Vanderbilt University Medical Center for 20 years, his Bostonian accent is still firmly intact. It’ll come in handy when he moves back to Plymouth, Massachusetts, this summer upon his retirement.

Wheaton came to VUMC from Harvard in 1998 to direct what was then called the Department of Institutional Safety (DIS). One of the first things he did was change the name of the department to Vanderbilt Environmental Health and Safety (VHES).

“People told me DIS meant disorganized, dysfunctional,” he joked. “When I came there were quite a few issues that needed to be corrected. We needed more of a sense of community with the organization, rather than being viewed as an outside agency.”

He reorganized the department’s function to become a customer-focused, service organization fully integrated within the Medical Center and Vanderbilt University. VEHS delivers radiation safety, biological safety, hazardous materials management, hospital/clinic safety compliance, and occupational safety and training programs to the entire Vanderbilt community.

“While not always in the limelight, departments like Environmental Health and Safety are on duty 24/7 and fundamental to our success, making important contributions that enable the Medical Center and University to fulfill their missions. Bob is an outstanding leader whose experience will be missed. I want to express my sincere gratitude for his longstanding commitment to the institution, and for continuing to advance the quality and depth of our programs of safety and compliance throughout his tenure,” said John F. Manning Jr., PhD, MBA, Chief Operating Officer and Corporate Chief of Staff.

Wheaton is one of the founding members and past president of the Middle Tennessee Section for the American Industrial Hygiene Association. He has served on the board of directors for the Campus Safety Health and Environmental Management Association and for the American Conference of Industrial Hygiene (ACGIH).

He was named Member of the Year of the Campus Safety, Health and Environmental Management Division of the National Safety Council (CSHEMA) in 2002.

“Bob essentially built from scratch the environmental health and safety programs we have now,” said Kevin Warren, director of chemical and radiation safety within VEHS.

“I think his two biggest accomplishments are getting executive leadership to proactively invest in these programs without an external driver such as a major incident or regulatory citation; and gradually changing the culture at the institution to embrace these programs and to view safety and compliance as an institutional priority and goal that our department serves as a resource to achieve rather than a goal for our department that the institution helps us to achieve,” Warren said.

“Since Bob established these programs, regulatory inspections in these areas have transformed from events that were feared to events that typically shine a positive light on VUMC.”

Wheaton and his team started VandySafe in 2003, which, at the time, was a new online training program that provided an alternative method for satisfying mandatory safety training required by the various regulatory agencies. It transitioned to the Learning Exchange in 2016. His team also started AlertVU shortly after the mass shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech in 2007. His first order of business was to have tornado sirens installed on campus following a two-day tornado outbreak in Nashville a month before his arrival.

“Bob has a true passion for safety and keeping the Medical Center in compliance,” said Jeff Mangrum, RN, director of Emergency Preparedness for VUMC. “He keeps a sense of calmness during a difficult situation and works with other departments to resolve the issue quickly. Patient, visitor and staff safety are always his main priority during an event.”

An environmental chemist by trade and training, Wheaton later became a board-certified industrial hygienist.

“I had a background where I put myself through school and I worked a lot of hourly occupations in hazardous conditions and I saw what folks are exposed to and I thought combining my science skills with something practical, if it helped people, was the way to go,” he said.

Wheaton and his wife, Kathy, are moving in a few weeks to an age 55-plus living community located 1 mile from the beach near Plymouth in order to be closer to family and to indulge his photography hobby.

Sitting in his office in the basement of Medical Center North, now cluttered with moving boxes and bubble wrap, he reflects on what he’ll miss about VUMC.

“The people. It’s really true that Vanderbilt is a collegial work environment,” he said.

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