Construction Safety Week Spotlight: Mario Saenz

Since joining Webcor in 2017, Mario Saenz has been promoted three times, most recently to the leadership position of safety manager at UCSF NHPH.

May 8, 2024

Employee Spotlight

When Safety Manager Mario Saenz was a child, his parents decided to build their own custom home—a decision that would proceed to ignite his decades-long passion for construction. After a few weeks of accompanying his dad to weekly and daily inspections, Mario was hooked. At 7 years old, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to be when he grew up, but he knew he wanted to experience more of that.

His fascination with all that goes into bringing a structure to life continued to surge over the next decade, eventually landing him in a Bachelor of Architecture program in his hometown of Tijuana, Mexico. A few years later, he pursued his master’s in engineering and project management at UC Berkeley with the goal of gaining a more thorough understanding of the overall building process.

Immediately after graduation, he accepted a full-time offer as a Webcor project engineer (PE) leading MEPS at UCSF’s Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision. He was drawn to Webcor’s building-centric culture and felt excited to join a general contractor that aligned with his passion for the hands-on building process.

“Seeing buildings rise from the ground and knowing you’re an important gear in that whole process has always been really rewarding,” Mario says. “I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute to several noteworthy Webcor projects over the last few years, including UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision, Genesis Marina, UCSF HSIR, and UCSF New Hospital at Parnassus Heights (NHPH).”

Although he was thrilled to be supporting UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision as a PE, settling into a new role with a major California GC wasn’t without its challenges. In addition to the learning curve new PEs often face when they're just starting out, Mario was still becoming fluent in English—a challenge exacerbated by dyslexia, a language-based learning disorder with which he’d been diagnosed as a child.

“Learning to spell while dyslexic is pretty rough,” he says. “I don’t struggle with it much now, but during those first few months as a PE, getting through my constant stream of emails and taking meeting minutes without knowing how to spell definitely challenged me each week.

“Ultimately, though, my English rose to the occasion. I continued practicing, referred to helpful apps like Grammarly and Speechify, learned to be patient with myself, and let time take care of the rest.”

That was 2017. Since then, Mario’s been promoted three times, most recently to the leadership position of safety manager at UCSF NHPH. As one of the Herrero Boldt Webcor (HBW) tri-venture’s safety leaders, he advises the field team on the safest ways to build, forecasts high-risk activities, treats injuries and incidents, and tracks the team’s safety documentation—and those are just the responsibilities in his official job description. He’s also a safety culture ambassador and Spanish translator, a responsibility he’s held since his early days on Block 33.

“Understanding Spanish and English has allowed me to reach the majority of every project team I’ve been on without being restricted by a language barrier,” Mario says. “I’ve been able to actively listen and follow up on team members’ feedback and concerns, which opens the doors to even more meaningful feedback.”

From Webcor PE to Safety Manager

At UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision, translating the team’s weekly all-hands safety meetings into Spanish thrust him into the safety world for the first time; before he knew it, he was also leading the safety orientations in Spanish and running UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision's internal safety committee.

The safety committee had emerged as a solution to the lack of candid input from craft professionals at all levels and the low sense of psychological safety across the field team, an issue identified by UC Berkeley’s Project Production Systems Laboratory (P2SL) psychological survey. The committee aimed to engage craft professionals across various trades in honest conversations about what was going well, what could be improved, and how they could help each other in the field. The committee would pair up craft professionals from different trades and instruct them to walk the job site together while sharing their perspectives.

“Leading the safety committee at UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision really opened my eyes to the idea of a long-term career in safety,” Mario says. “The safety committee was successful overall; some of the members became safety ambassadors and always had something to report on behalf of field employees. Communication across craft professionals from all trades skyrocketed.”

UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision's Safety Committee

With the avid support of his UCSF Wayne and Gladys Valley Center for Vision leaders, Mario transitioned to Safety full-time once the project closed out in June 2020. “I really appreciate that they recognized something in me and assisted my switch to Safety,” he says. “It’s been a great fit.”

Now that tackling all things safety is his full-time job, Mario’s been able to completely immerse himself in what he does best: build trust with field team members through daily rapport and active listening so that when the time comes to speak up for safety, whether physical or psychological, they’ll know they can turn to him in confidence.

“I love that safety is a noble cause,” he shares. “I approach every discussion with a service-focused mindset and genuinely enjoy listening to everything field workers have to share, from their daily struggles to their successes.”

These conversations build the trust that ultimately empowers workers to Speak Up for Safety, which Mario uses to inform his project’s continually updated safety guidelines and policies. For a safety manager, there’s nothing quite as valuable as this type of authentic, on-the-job input on ways to create a safer work environment.

Currently, Mario’s working toward his Associate Safety Professional (ASP) certification, a prerequisite  to the Certified Safety Professional (CSP)—another set of post-nominals he plans to one day add to his name. He’s also preparing to earn his OSHA 500, which would qualify him to lead the majority of construction trainings as a certified trainer.

“I look forward to supporting the NHPH team and growing as a safety leader for years to come,” Mario says. “I’m truly excited for all that lies ahead of this incredibly rewarding career trajectory.”

The Future of Safety in Construction

Looking ahead to the future of safety in the industry, Mario sees great potential in leveraging artificial intelligence (AI) to facilitate time-consuming tasks such as hazard identification via still images. Although he was underwhelmed with the image-recognition technology he tried out while an assistant safety manager at a former project, he remains optimistic about AI’s future in the construction safety space.

“We collaborated with an AI company that seemed promising at first,” Mario says. “Ultimately, however, it wasn’t that efficient, as I still had to go through the reports and manually find safety hazards it had missed. I’m sure the technology will get there eventually, though.”

Mario’s also optimistic about the industry’s increasing emphasis on psychological safety and mental health—vital topics that have shifted to the forefront of Construction Safety Week conversations. In 2020, a group of construction professionals launched Construction Suicide Prevention Week to draw attention to the industry’s alarmingly high suicide rate and drive much-needed conversations about the overall state of construction professionals’ mental health.

“It’s become clear to me that providing emotional support for employees, especially those in the field, helps empower them to communicate their concerns without fear of repercussion,” Mario says. “As a safety leader, proving to your team that you genuinely care is key to creating a pathway for transparent communication.”

Safety Week’s Growing Significance

Each Safety Week, Mario looks forward to the crisis management drill that typically follows the end-of-Safety Week appreciation lunch for field teams. These drills are executed in the form of a team safety challenge; each team is presented with a crisis scenario to which they’re expected to respond appropriately.

Since everyone’s already gathered for lunch, it’s usually the perfect opportunity to organize a site evacuation drill. The drill gives safety leaders the chance to practice moving and organizing large groups of people to ensure a successful headcount, as well as to pinpoint flaws in the current evacuation plan and adjust as necessary before a true mandatory evacuation occurs. In the past, certain teams have located the “missing worker” as soon as 15 minutes into the drill.

“Safety Week’s such an important reminder to focus on health and safety,” Mario says. “The entire week’s activities open up important discussions that reinforce the significance of Speaking Up for Safety, regardless of title or department."