“Safety Bob” Wheaton
His license plate proclaims “SAFTBOB.” That moniker conveys Bob Wheaton’s mission as Vanderbilt’s executive director of environmental health and safety, sustainability and environmental management.
Is there a funny smell in Benson Hall? Wheaton and his staff of 34 want to know about it. Need a particular chemical for a physics experiment? Wheaton’s department has already catalogued and created a tracking system for 26,000 lab chemicals. What if the psychology department wants to up its commitment to going green? They’ve got it covered. Suppose a natural disaster happened during a football game? No worries—Wheaton’s team has helped create a safety plan.
The native New Englander shrugs at the myriad, multiple moving parts of his domain and insists that focusing on the institution-wide picture while simultaneously dogging the details is just how it’s done. Safety Bob is on the job.
Where did Safety Bob get his start?
I was always interested in science. I had a professor in environmental toxicology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Every week he’d read to us the job ads and salaries in the field of industrial hygiene. I thought they sounded pretty good. After graduating I worked at Digital Equipment Corp. as an environmental chemist and then as an industrial hygienist.
After leaving Digital, I was assistant director of environmental health and safety at Harvard for six years before coming to Vanderbilt. That was 10 years ago, and Vanderbilt is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.
Is there an initiative that you’re particularly proud of?
One of the things we do is help with clean-up in labs that are closing. These are important programs we’ve developed to assist researchers in moving, closing or relocating laboratories. In fact, we just helped move eight researchers from chemistry into new facilities at the Vanderbilt Institute for Chemical Biology in Medical Research Building IV.
Have you come across any surprises during those kinds of moves?
When Nobel Prize-winning professor Stanley Cohen was retiring, we found a plastic vial labeled “KCV.” We asked him about it and he said, “Oh, that’s king cobra venom.”
Once, early on a Sunday morning, we were removing some hazardous materials from the old Medical Center North dock. We roped off the area with yellow caution tape and had experts in to handle it properly and safely. We even had VUPD police officers there to help protect public safety. Then some guy walked up and tried to duck under the tape like nothing was going on. I guess he was going into his office to work. It’s always something.
After 10 years in Nashville, do you miss Boston?
Sure, I miss family and friends, but Vanderbilt’s a special place. It has a collegial atmosphere, and the people here really do want to do the right thing. I also miss going to Red Sox and Patriot games. So I go to Titans games instead.
So after the Super Bowl is over, what then?
I’m a golfer with a 13 handicap. My wife, Kathy, and I live on the 19th hole of a 27-hole course. We play every Saturday and Sunday and sometimes during the week. My friends say if there’s a golf infomercial [about a piece of equipment], I own it. That stuff helps my game. Sometimes.
“I figured it wouldn’t look good for Vanderbilt if its safety director got killed while photographing a tornado.”
And if you’re not on the golf course …?
I like photography and have a Nikon D300. I love that camera. It’s got the latest and greatest technology built in. I like to shoot environmental stuff—you know, whales breaching and celestial and weather events. My picture of a lightning strike is in the Vanderbilt calendar this year. I’m still waiting on a good tornado [shot]. During the last tornado I was in the closet with Kathy. I figured it wouldn’t look good for Vanderbilt if its safety director got killed while photographing a tornado.
Besides photography and golf, what else do you do?
I enjoy cooking and TiVo cooking shows such as Tyler’s Ultimate, Everyday Italian, America’s Test Kitchen and Down Home with the Neeleys.
My best dishes are pizza from scratch, spaghetti and meatballs, anything on the grill and smoking ribs. I do have to confess, though, that my secret food vice is rocky road ice cream.
Do you have a favorite book?
I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when I was in college. I really envied the imagination and writing style of Ken Kesey in being able to develop the characters and the storyline to not only entertain, but also to use symbolism to describe society in the 1950s.
Is there someone famous you wish you could meet?
My grandfather was a vaudeville magician. You’d have never heard of him, but he’d met Harry Houdini and I wish I could meet Houdini, too. Houdini could do miraculous things like escape from chains inside a safe in 40 feet of water. He could do things no one else could do. I’d ask him how he did it and why. It’s a safety thing, ya know?
photo credit: John Russell