Eros Zuñiga: A Veteran Safety Advocate

Home Current Events National Security & Public Safety Eros Zuñiga: A Veteran Safety Advocate

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. This holds true for the working class where an in-depth understanding of the safety measures can lead to higher productivity and save lives. As current president of the Safety Organization of the Philippines (SOPI), Eros Zuñiga is the man behind ensuring security issues at work, at home or during catastrophic, man-made disasters.

SOPI is a non-profit non-governmental, and national public service organization aimed at preserving life, promoting health, and protecting the environment. Its members include industrial establishments, businesses, schools, public agencies, private groups, labor organizations, and several prominent individuals.

Eros says that the daredevil mentality of a typical Pinoy leads to a greater risk of meeting an accident. “Most accidents are caused by unsafe acts in unsafe conditions. Unsafe acts account for 90 percent of the time; unsafe conditions represent only 10 percent. Many people who do unsafe acts are prone to accidents.

Cultural Norms

“Everything boils down to attitude. We tend to believe that we come from a race of brave men. Like the famous phrase, “Anak ni Bonifacio: A tapang a tao!” We have a certain attitude that does not regard safety. We are known for saying “Bahala na yan” (Come what may) and “Pwede na yan” (That is okay [without double-checking any work]). Some of us are also known for the mantra, “May awa ang Diyos” (God will take care of us). We seem to depend on fortune or do things in a snap without giving our best.

Some people even ignore warnings regarding safety measures thinking we will all die anyway no matter how safe we may be. At SOPI, people are reminded to take good care of themselves. This endeavor is the group’s main objective.

Eros stresses the overarching mission of SOPI – to build a culture of safety, health and environmental protection as a way of life in the country.

Established in 1959, SOPI is one of the oldest organizations in the world that focuses on the prevention of deaths or injuries in the workplace, at home, in the communities, and while on the road. SOPI facilitated the creation of World Safety Organization in 1975, which was a much bigger global institution.

Promoting Safety

Presidential Proclamation 115-A was issued on 17 November 1967 declaring every year as Safety and Accident Prevention Year. SOPI would be a lead private sector organization in the country to devote every month its activities in safety issues, particularly occupational safety.

For instance, the theme for January is ‘general orientation on safety,‘ March is on ‘fire prevention,’ June is on ‘sea transport’ and December is involved in ‘homes and holiday hazards,’ i.e., handling fireworks. October is the busiest month when SOPI organizes its biggest safety convention for the industry and commerce sector.

SOPI’s main activity is conducting safety seminars and related training courses. Regular courses include a four-day basic occupational health and safety seminar and a trainers’ training.

The OHS course can be adjusted according to the requirements of the participants. In July and September 2009, an occupational health and safety seminar was offered to the construction industry officers.

A SOPI trainer is an expert about safety and accident prevention issues. He has a technical background on the topics he is assigned to discuss, completed a trainers’ course at SOPI, and secured accreditation leading to a permit to train from the Bureau of Working Conditions of the Department of Labor and Employment.

Knowledge is Power

Having a good grasp of preventive measures empowers people to promote safety at home and in the workplace. A seasoned professional like Eros has a street-wise appreciation of why safety awareness matters.

He explains, “There are only two types of people in the city. One is the ignorant and the other is the ignoring individual. You may ask: Where do we belong? We belong to both. We certainly do not know certain things but there are things that we choose to set aside. Some of these things we ignore and these lead us to accidents.”

Humble Beginnings

Eros shares some words of wisdom from his experience. When he entered the military at a very young age and while in the service, he got the chance to earn a degree in Political Science at the Fort Bonifacio College (now Makati University) in 1970s. During his stint as a military man, he was member of Scout Rangers Class 14, where he was assigned in the troubled spots in the country. His classmates included retired PNP Deputy Director Ricardo de Leon and Gen. Julius Javier, former commanding general of the Philippine Army Scout Rangers.

Initially, he rose from the ranks as third-class trainee to the captain. After a decade in the military, he got an honorable discharge reverting to inactive status. During his first job as a private citizen, he was a detachment commander of the security agency hired to secure the premises of Gelmart Philippines, a large-scale exporter of ladies’ undergarments. He managed 80 security guards within a 24-hour production plant employing 8,000 employees, and 1,000 of these were men.

After his eight-month stint with Gelmart, Eros was employed by Hyatt Regency Manila as security officer, holding the assistant security manager position for two years. In 1989, Isetann Department Store got his services as security officer of its Recto branch and later became the security manager of all Isetann outlets.

He worked with Isetann for two years and moved to Shangri La Plaza as security and safety manager, until his retirement a decade later. It was during his stay at Shangri La where he realized that security and safety are two different things. This triggered to his membership in SOPI.

“Safety is broader in scope covering security, health, and environment,” he says. “As a security person, I was conducting fire drills not knowing these were part of the wider safety net. I realized that emergency preparedness measures undertaken by security personnel are just one aspect of safety.”

To beef up on the security and safety demands of his job at Shangri La, Eros went out looking for a capacity-building organization that would bridge the two spheres of his chosen profession. Even then, SOPI had solid training courses in occupational safety and security officer Eros found himself hooked on the group’s real-world convergence of security and safety.

Safety vs Security

Eros views his lifelong passion to reconcile the complementing aspects of safety and security. The uninformed from either camp views it otherwise as a conflict of mutually exclusive interests.

He adds, “There are situations when the security officer and the safety manager have differing views on the certain issues. For safety concerns, for example, exit doors in buildings, particularly theaters, must always be opened. The security guard would rather keep them locked to prevent illegal intruders. As a compromise, a panic device is installed allowing you to open a door from the inside but not from the outside.”

“Now comes your smart guy placing a wedge on the door so he can come back to the building using the same door which would otherwise be locked from the outside. To address this, an alarm button was put in place. The door may be opened from the outside only during an emergency. If the alarm goes off but there is no emergency, the building security gets a citation similar to a traffic violation receipt.”

Being immersed in the folds of security and safety nets, Eros became a full-fledged member of SOPI as an individual patron joining the likes of former Pres. Fidel Ramos, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, and former DOLE Sec. Blas Ople. SOPI has over 1,000 institutional members that include PLDT, Meralco, and Don Bosco Technical College. Its government partners include DOLE, Department of Transportation and Communications, Department of Public Highways and Department of Health for specific programs and projects.

Skills Upgrading

Convinced that a solid understanding of occupational safety will upgrade his security skills, Eros attended SOPI conventions to update himself about new security technologies and trends applicable to the different sectors. He became a SOPI director in 1996 and vice-president for internal affairs from 1997 and 2000. He has been serving as SOPI president since 2004.

He remains a volunteer at SOPI. He gets only representation allowance to oversee operations of the mother of all safety organizations in Asia. He says his most significant contribution is making it a profitable organization after years of operating in the red. SOPI funds its operations mainly from training fees, with additional income from consulting engagements.

Eros shares that his greatest frustration in the job is being consulted by media regarding the hows and the whys after a major accident has happened.

He elaborates, “I sometimes get invited on TV and radio for my views regarding a recent tragedy. Why does it take for a mishap to occur before we (SOPI) get a chance to explain safety precautions? We are always ready to provide insights on tested tips to prevent accidents.”

“I once was asked whether a certain ship should sail during storm signal 1 at the sea. Looking at the total safety paradigm, all sea-going vessels should not sail during storm signal 1. It is difficult to accurately predict the movement of a typhoon. It changes direction randomly.”

The SOPI’s chief warns people not to take probable safety risks for granted. He recalls an incident in an amusement park where a teenager jumped to her death in the course of a Wild River ride. He notes, “During the investigation, the Canadian safety officer told that it was a standard worldwide not to provide safety belts for such rides because these harnesses might choke the rider. We stressed certain standards may have to be adopted according to the local culture. During panic, young children tend to stand up as a result of extreme fear leading to a potential accident.

“The park management could have used elastic safety belts. These can keep you restrained in place without stifling you. Certain standards have to be tweaked to adopt the local setting, especially for technologies brought from developed countries.”

Identifying Hazards

In principle, assessing safety risks is simple. Eros says this starts with identifying the hazard. Evaluating the impact of the hazard follows either to you, the company or the larger community. Formulating controls and remedial measures is necessary. The process gets complicated depending on the scale of operations being audited for safety risks.

The SOPI president cites a foreign investor who wants to put up a chemical processing and storage facility in Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority. SOPI was requested to conduct a safety audit before an investment could be given a green light.

The investor balked at the fees. SOPI justified its consulting services explaining that the type of proposed business demanded a full audit covering all possible risks from fire to spills and earthquake and whether the technical works provide adequate controls against a wide range of probable risks. A team of experts would be fielded to conduct the risk assessment that would have cost more than half a million pesos. Apparently, the investor opted to take his business plans elsewhere.

Safety at its Finest

Safety practices need not be rigorous. Fire is a common accident. Eros suggests that families should adopt the “fire brigade concept” in preparing for any emergency at home.

“The father can be the fire marshal. The mother will be his assistant. The eldest can act as the fire-fighting unit, and the other children can assume other tasks. You can designate posts that you will assemble after a major emergency like fire.” It is advised that the family members should have a ready mindset instead of panicking at the onset of an emergency.

Lack of awareness is the root cause many Filipinos shrug off potential risks against safe passage to a long productive life. People should take a few cues from Eros who has taken the less traveled road from security guardian to safety advocate. Even in his retirement, he works helping others to achieve a safe and happy life.•

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