District Manager Eric Hassel standing on top of shoveled snow

Building a Safety Culture with Health and Nutrition

District Manager Eric Hassel has focused on reducing losses through lifestyle choices

Spring is usually the time of year to reflect on how our New Year’s resolutions are going. For many of us, that means reexamining our exercise and nutrition goals—two major components to our overall health. At Purgatory Metropolitan District, District Manager Eric Hassel and his team are no exception. In fact, the relationship between nutrition, exercise, and health has long been a focus for the small but powerful metropolitan district. Consequently, it has become a component of safety and loss prevention.

Purgatory Metro provides central water and wastewater services, road maintenance and repairs, and snow removal to an area outside of Durango. Boundaries begin at Engineer Village and move to the north to Tacoma Village, ending just past the San Juan County Line. Their mission is to provide high quality, cost effective and efficient services to their customer base. They are also constantly monitoring their systems, procedures, and programs to deliver on their promise.

In addition, Purgatory Metro maintains recreational facilities to a growing number of residents and guests. They take advantage of the community center, Twilight Lake for fly fishing and kayaking, and Durango Nordic Center. There, guests have access to almost 30 km of trails that are maintained in winter for skate skiing, traditional skiing, and snowshoeing.

The district has expansive operations, but they work with a small staff. It is comprised of four employees that plow snow and perform various water, wastewater, and digging operations. The district also works with about a dozen contract workers. They round-out operations and assist with waterline repairs, snow removal, and construction projects. With a small team that has to cover a lot of ground, physical and nutritional wellness is key to make sure everyone remains healthy and fit for duty.

Mission: Nutrition

To support this mission, Eric Hassel, the District Manager of Purgatory Metro for the last six years, has focused on building a culture at his district in addition to promoting the message through community outreach and networking at the same time.

Hassel is the author of a monthly newsletter known as “Do Diligence Performance.” It focuses on healthy lifestyle choices and how to maintain nutritional goals in a fast-paced working environment. He is also an instructor at his local CrossFit, and he frequently gives presentations on the subject. The most recent of these occurred at last year’s SDA Conference.

The idea for this focus came from his interaction with the Department of Transportation and various truck drivers. The conversation focused on how truck drivers don’t realize how poor their diet is. That in turn affects their physical health, mental health, and job performance negatively. Hassel understood this issue was not just limited to drivers.

“I thought, this is the same thing for special districts, water operators, and fire departments,” Hassel says.

Hassel got his start in special districts working as a firefighter at Hermosa Cliff Fire at age 16. Afterwards he went on to work at Durango Fire prior to a seven-year stint in the Navy. It was through these roles that he was exposed to and conducted fitness education. From his time working at fire departments, he learned firsthand the difficulties of maintaining a balanced and nutritious diet that is a result of the fast-paced, rigorous work environment.

“When you have an opportunity to eat, you simply eat what can you put together,” Hassel says.

To counter this, Hassel often tried to cook and prepare meals alongside other members of his shift to encourage participation and accountability. But even a structured approach proved difficult on the job.

“How do we all help each other to prepare together and healthy for everyone?” Hassel wonders. “There are those days we don’t have an opportunity to cook together, what do we do?”

Choosing Wellness

It was Hassel’s time spent at fire departments that allowed him to undeniably connect the dots with what he sees at his own district. The issues firefighters and truck drivers have with eating right is similarly an issue for equipment operators and construction workers that work at all kinds of special districts.

Hassel further illustrated this point while working to keep his district’s roads clear after a recent snowfall. “Today, I’m in the plow truck, and I don’t have an option to cook healthy. But there are steps I can take to keep up on nutrition and wellness,” Hassel says. “Focus on the protein and the whole foods, and not on the ‘I can stop by the gas station for a snickers bar’.”

Hassel has spent time and energy promoting this message among his staff and other special districts. Keeping his team healthy ensures that his small staff shows up for work, feel good, and can get the job done. To accomplish this, accountability is a major component to spreading the word and keeping his staff on track.

“One thing we do here, we kind of help each other to pack our lunch every day. When we get new guys, those guys seeing us doing it and they start to do it, too,” Hassel says. “It’s just part of our culture.”

For other districts looking for insight on how to develop their own culture focused on nutrition, Hassel has advice: Build it little by little and let them find their way—and that starts with messaging.

“Its gotta start from the top. The leadership has to show their commitment. Make it part of the culture. Show that everybody has to be a part of it. It takes time. It’s taken five, six years to get to where we are.”

But that work has appeared to pay off. Their district’s routine and culture has started to spread out into the volunteers that come to the Nordic center, contractors that work with Purgatory Metro, and even people at the ski resort.

“It all started because we started talking about it,” Hassel says.

Eating right and focusing on nutrition has a direct correlation to physical and mental wellness. This plays further into safety and loss prevention. Indeed, for those that take his messaging seriously, Hassel can see the improvements quickly.

“You can tell people just sound different. They are happy, you can see it and feel it coming off of them. It’s amazing how in the last year, or six months, the more I talk about it, how excited people are to talk about their progress.”

Safety Takes Focus

The correlation has been apparent at Purgatory Metro between health, wellness, and nutrition and how it ties into the success of district operations and worker safety. Talk at the district revolves a lot around how to move properly, how to lift to prevent injury, and how to use the body.

“The biggest thing is with – we move a lot of heavy things – a lot of the activities are very physical,” Hassel says. “Whether we’re pounding fence posts, digging a ditch, plowing snow, we have that in the back of our mind. ‘Move with intention’ is how we talk about it. It turned into a philosophy—when we’re doing this let’s make sure we’re being intentional.”

As Hassel and the staff at Purgatory Metro continue to manage operations through the winter months, the focus remains on consistent nutrition and wellness to get them through each season. In addition, Hassel is blown away by how many people were interested in his presentation and newsletter. He further hopes to develop more tailored presentations for other districts. His goal above all is to get people thinking about eating healthy and getting away from the office and computer.

“I think we can help people feel better at the workplace—and help with on-the-job injuries.”

As we ended our interview, Hassel was taking his own advice after spending the morning in the snowplow.

“When you go on a long car ride, when you go for a ride in the plow truck all day, make it a habit to get out and walk around.”

So he signed off and started his walk.

Getting exercise on snowplow

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