CHICAGO — The best workplace ever? It just might be UL (Underwriters Laboratories) world headquarters in Northbrook, Ill. This is where 1,700 engineers, scientists and technicians test and set standards for everything from toasters to incubators for newborns.
Sound boring? Guess again.
“Everything your mother told you not to do, we get to do,” says John Drengenberg, UL’s consumer safety director and corporate spokesman. “We break into safes, we shoot bullets, we hit things, burn things.”
UL also educates the public. That’s where the 72-year-old Drengenberg comes in.
He’s the guy you hear on the radio or see on TV giving holiday safety tips. He answers reporters’ technical questions. And lately he has been the go-to guy for writers at SafeBee, UL’s safety, health and product website that was launched last year. He also has a regular column that answers reader questions.
An electrical engineer who was born in Wisconsin and who graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, then got a master’s in management from Northwestern University, he’s all about explaining to people how to do things safely. To a point.
“People who take their upright outside to vacuum leaves,” he says, “we can’t do anything about that.”
He will tell you that UL has 11,000 employees worldwide, that there are 125 UL-labeled items in the average home (toasters, appliances, fans, shingles), that UL tests 22,000 different types of items each year and that the UL seal is placed on products 22 billion times a year. After 49 years at UL, he also has great stories, such as: When UL was at 207 E. Ohio St. in downtown Chicago, old files brought up from storage would smell like horse manure because the building, or so it was said, used to house the horses that pulled Chicago Tribune newspaper delivery wagons.
During a recent two-hour visit, Drengenberg talked about UL and his time there. This is an edited transcript of the conversation:
Q: How did you end up here?
A: Underwriters Laboratories was one of many places recruiting engineers when I graduated [from college]. Engineers were much sought-after then. I could have worked for NASA, Honeywell. I figured I’d go to Chicago for a year, see if I liked working on consumer products. Next thing I knew, it was five years later.
Q: What are some of the things you worked on here?
A: I was head of the group that revised the [automatic] garage door standard a number of years ago to include the newer requirements for electric eyes that can sense when anyone or anything is in the path of a downward traveling door, causing it to reverse and open. I also was head of the group that developed the cavity fire containment test for microwave ovens. It prevents fires in microwave ovens from getting out of the microwave and into the kitchen or entire home.
Q: How did you become UL’s spokesman?
A: We have little get-togethers here — for someone’s 30th anniversary, or if they’re having a baby — we have a sheet cake, some coffee. About 10 years ago, I was at one of those, talking to the woman in our media department. She needed someone to do a radio interview, and the guy who was supposed to do it couldn’t. He said, “Let John do it.” I said absolutely not. I’m an engineer; I never wanted to talk on the radio. But she couldn’t find anyone, so I did it.
Q: That was the start.
A: Yes. Fast forward another year. We had two [radio] stations that wanted holiday safety tips. She said, “It’s the same thing as last year.” But then it kept growing. Finally it got to the point that my boss said, “You’re doing so much media work, why don’t you do it full time?” This was seven, eight years ago, and I was thinking of retirement. But I did it and never looked back. I started keeping a logbook. We’ve done 2,300 interviews and counting.
Q: Of all the things you’re asked about, what is your favorite topic?
A: Holidays. It’s the oldest topic, one I’ve learned. I’m able to manage pretty well. If you called and asked for safety tips, I could talk for two minutes. And not just Christmas — Hanukkah, Kwanzaa are also holidays wrapped up in [potential safety hazards such as] candles. I can talk about life jackets, barbecue safety. It’s expanded to many topics, like bullet-resistant materials. Or safes. We have safecrackers here.
Q: SafeBee covers so much territory — “The Best Sleep Position for What Ails You,” “What Bit Me? Mystery Bug Bites Solved” — where do the story ideas come from?
A: Usually from reporters. They ask a question; we find an expert. If someone wanted to know about wire connectors, we have a wire connector lab downstairs. We can sit and talk to people here all day about wire connectors. We’re unique. We developed the safety standards.
Q: UL’s mission is safety and educating the public. People can do some silly things.
A: We hear things like, “I hear there’s a new kind of hair dryer you can use in the bathtub.” No. Hair dryers now have ground-fault circuit interrupters, right at the plug. If it goes into water it shuts it right down. We’d never recommend taking it into a shower. We educate people, but we also protect them from themselves.
Q: It’s more than testing products.
A: We set, test and certify standards. We even follow up. We have inspectors all over the world.
Q: Not that you need anything else to capture your interest, but what do you do away from here?
A: I have hobbies, for sure. I’ve been a ham radio operator since I was a kid. I love trains. Photography. If you look out in our parking lot, you’ll see one car that’s different. That’s mine, a 1930 Model A. I needed something older than me.
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