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It's all about safety for Michele Espinoza

The Beaverton resident works hard to keep workers safe on the job

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Beaverton resident Michele Espinoza, an authorized Occupational Safety and Health Administration instructor, stands on scaffolding above the Broadway Bridge where she keeps the workers who are painting the bridge safe from injury.Michele Espinoza has come to love Oregon, but she hasn't always been an Oregonian.

No indeed. Espinoza, an Aloha resident, spent more than 45 years in Las Vegas, but she rolled the dice, moved west three years ago, and in her estimation, hit the jackpot.

One place she's never gambled, however, is with the safety of the workers she oversees in her role as a safety manager.

Espinoza, 50, has worked most of her adult life in that role, keeping workers safe on projects that (among many other things): replaced power lines between two solar plants on the Nevada-California state line; oversaw construction on Intel plants in both Arizona and Oregon; handled work on a data center in The Dalles; retrofitted paper mills in both St. Helens and Wallula, Wash.; included a one-year stint with the U.S. military in Afghanistan; and most recently, painted three spans of the Broadway Bridge.

“It is very gratifying when I can tell that someone has grasped what I've told them,” said Espinoza, who also works as an authorized instructor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “I tell (workers) 'Don't tell me you're sorry you didn't wear your safety glasses, tell yourself you're sorry because they're your eyes.'”

Keeping workers safe — their eyes and every other part of their person — has been Espinoza's occupation for a very long time now. An independent contractor, she moves from job to job as needed, and also teaches two levels of OSHA classes, 10 hours for workers and 30 hours for foremen.

Her most recent job, on the Broadway Bridge, lasted nine months and concluded March 27, just days before she celebrated her third anniversary as an Oregonian. For someone who spent most of her life in the relatively arid climes of Nevada — it's actually listed as the driest state in the country — Espinoza has transitioned remarkably well to mossy, moldy, soggy Oregon.

“Being from Las Vegas for 45 years, I was proud of that, of being there. It was hard to go to a new place and prove I loved it, too,” Espinoza said. “But the weather here is so — the rain is like gold. The gray skies, all the clouds, I think it's incredibly beautiful.”

On that most recent job on the Broadway Bridge in downtown Portland, Espinoza was tasked with keeping a work crew of 20-25 safe as they painted, with their scaffolding in dangerously close proximity to the Overhead Central System of the Portland Streetcar.

“Keeping 20 to 25 guys on track is a pretty big job,” she said. “Not their actual work, just how to do it safely.”

The OCS, it turns out, carries 750 volts of direct current to the streetcars that travel beneath them, and it would have been a very bad thing for the painters' metal scaffolding to make contact with those wires.

But thanks in part to Espinoza — she walked the site multiple times every day — and to the commitment of the painters who worked for F.D. Thomas, the scaffolding and those wires never made contact and the job was completed successfully, with those streetcars traveling across the Broadway Bridge all the while. (The bridge is currently closed and streetcars are locked out of traveling across it until April 11.)

“I was picked because of my electrical background and because the streetcars had to keep running during the project,” Espinoza said.

While Espinoza does not have a formal degree in safety management, she has done it so long and continued her education so consistently that she's become a known commodity in the industry for both her experience and her contacts.

“It's been life experience and common sense that taught me best,” she said.

Those qualifications, along with her first job at Intel in Arizona, set the table for her eventual move west. After returning to Las Vegas following her stint with Intel in Arizona, Espinoza's boss called her and said “Do you want to go and work at Intel In Portland?” she recalled. “It was an amazing opportunity. Work brought me here and I've just loved it.”

Through all of her disparate jobs, however, in all the many different locations, one thing remains of utmost importance.

“Everyone is focused on the same goals,” Espinoza said, “that everyone gets home safe.”