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Living On The Edge But Playing It Safe: What Barefoot Water-Skiing And Factory Safety Have In Common

P D Olson
March 22, 2017
You’d think an environmental health and safety (EHS) expert would be overly cautious about the world around him, calculating every possible danger and wrapping family members in cotton wool. Not Kevin Kaiser. While he’s spent his career teaching GE employees to stay safe, when the workday is over and Kaiser pursues one of the most teeth-gnashing hobbies known to humanity: barefoot water-skiing. “It’s exhilarating,” he says from his home office in Charleston, South Carolina. “There’s more risk to it. You go faster.”
To be exact, Kaiser zooms over the water at more than 40 miles per hour on just his feet, lending the water a frightening level of solidity. What happens when he falls and slams into that? “Yeah,” he says, smiling. “It hurts a little more.”

You might wonder why an EHS teacher puts his body on the line for fun. It turns out Kaiser’s pastime and career sync up pretty well. In fact, barefoot water-skiing gives him the perfect instruction scenario. “That’s one of the safest activities I do in my life,” he says. “Why? Because I think a lot about how I have to be safe.”

He brings the same attitude to his classes. Kaiser’s day job takes him all over the world, where he teaches groups of GE employees about EHS and leadership. Water-skiing can be the perfect icebreaker. “People’s home life can be very different from what they do at work and I’m exactly that way,” he says. “Water-skiing is dangerous, but if you put the right defenses in place you don’t get hurt.”

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GE employs thousands of people in factories where they make jet engines, locomotives and power plant turbines. They all must follow intricate safety procedures. At GE Aviation’s jet engine test facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, for instance, engineers run tests that spin engine turbines 10,000 times per minute. But the workers also adhere to detailed EHS rules that keep them protected behind blast-proof, 5-inch-thick windows and bunkerlike concrete walls.

Kaiser tells supervisors to speak to employees and encourage them to report any concerns that keep them up at night. “We teach the plant managers that it’s OK when someone brings you a concern,” he says. “Be out there; be visible; connect with the employees.”

The Kaiser family members have been visible in GE plants for decades. Kaiser’s grandfather Robert Christoffel worked in GE’s engineering lab in Schenectady, New York, as a metallurgist. Kaiser was 8 when, holding his grandfather’s hand, he first walked across the manufacturing floor and stared at giant turbine parts and huge machines. “I can remember that day more clearly than anything else,” he says.

Kaiser recalls asking a lot of questions that day and being fascinated with the journey of electricity from the power plant to the plug socket. He watched his grandfather experiment with different metal combinations and alloys — stress-testing the metal and putting it under a microscope to look for cracks. The goal was always to develop tools and machinery that were safer and more reliable for GE’s customers.

He encountered water sports through his kin, too. In 1990, Kaiser’s uncle Tom Stecher became the first in the family to join the 100-person water-skiing team that practiced on the local Mohawk River, which flows right next to GE’s sprawling Schenectady manufacturing facility. Stecher convinced Kaiser, then 9, to join the team. He was a natural from the start on regular skis — and then eventually, to get maximum speed, on his bare feet. “I joined that team because of my uncle and father,” he says. “Then I was hired into GE by a friend who was on the ski team.” He carried on like that for the next 17 years while working his way up the ranks at GE. “There’s just this crazy little community in Schenectady,” he says, “and the water-skiing team, GE and my family are all part of that.”

 width=Top GIF and above: Barefoot water-skiing is "one of the safest activities I do in my life,” says Kevin Kaiser. “Why? Because I think a lot about how I have to be safe.” Image and GIF credits: GE