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The Army Corps of Engineers Culture of Safety

A standard business practice for employees and contractors

Safety hazards are prevalent at construction sites. Add in language and cultural barriers such as those presented by contract employees in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) recognizes that only a comprehensive solution can do the job.

Jeffrey Ice, Afghanistan Engineer District-South safety and occupational health specialist, discusses improvised ladders with a contractor’s safety specialist during a project site visit on the Afghanistan National Army’s Shorabak compound in Helmand province May 9, 2012. Ice looked over several projects managed by the Tombstone Resident Office and worked with the construction companies’ safety personnel for several weeks. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Dave Melancon

Jeffrey Ice, Afghanistan Engineer District-South safety and occupational health specialist, discusses improvised ladders with a contractor’s safety specialist during a project site visit on the Afghanistan National Army’s Shorabak compound in Helmand province May 9, 2012. Ice looked over several projects managed by the Tombstone Resident Office and worked with the construction companies’ safety personnel for several weeks. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Dave Melancon

“We build safety into our business processes from cradle to grave,” said Rich Wright, chief of safety and occupational health at USACE. Whether at locks and dams in the United States or construction sites in Afghanistan, safety is part of the culture of work at USACE.

“Instead of just talking about safety, we want safety as an embedded part of everything we do,” Wright noted.

While USACE always has valued safety, it initiated an organization-wide cultural change in 2007 that makes safety a priority in all business processes. All employees receive general and job-specific safety training, and USACE works closely with contractors across the world to reinforce the need for safety plans and regular safety reviews.

It’s all part of a “safety management system” approach that builds safety into all activities and operations from top leaders/administrators to front-line workers and contractors.

“Instead of wholly depending on a safety pro, we involve everyone in the process,” said Wright, who has served in this capacity since 2007 and has 12 years total experience with USACE. Key ingredients in this culture of safety include:

  • Leadership training that focuses on the meaning of safety and the individual’s role in promoting safety;
  • A risk management process in which everyone should be able to recognize hazards;
  • A comprehensive commitment to training, so that everyone has safety training and individuals have training that is specific to their job area; and
  • Employee buy-in so that every employee has responsibility for safety.

“In the old days, a safety officer would walk through a worksite with a checklist and clipboard,” he said. But the old system didn’t foster a culture in which everyone has a role in safety.

Now, a strategic plan helps set USACE priorities. This plan outlines specific roles, responsibilities, and actions across USACE to involve every employee in awareness and training. In addition, an annual safety management action plan contains specific objectives.

“In the new system, there’s never a time when someone says, ‘That doesn’t look right but that’s not my job,’” Wright said. “We are enabling mission success by having everyone involved.”

USACE sets key metrics each year – including accident rates – and tracks them at each command. Workers must detail any incident that happened on a given day. Any injury or accident has to be reported. The reports also list how many received training on a certain day.

“We have leadership buy-in to make this work effectively,” Wright said.

USACE actively analyzes potential hazards at each worksite, and a comprehensive safety manual includes not only safety procedures but also best practices.

So far, this approach already has yielded impressive results: USACE has won the Secretary of the Army/Chief of Staff of the Army Safety Award in two of the last three years, and accident rates continue to take a downward trend. But one loss or accident is too many, and USACE is constantly striving to perform better. “Not only do we have an obligation to ensure the safety and health of all of our teammates, we can get the job done much more effectively on a safe job site rather than an unsafe job site, since shutting down due to a serious injury or incident can mean a huge amount of lost time and money,” Wright said.

Wright manages a staff of eight at USACE headquarters, and provides leadership and oversight through USACE Safety and Health “Community of Practice” for approximately 375 USACE safety and occupational health professionals who operate in the field and serve as the eyes and ears of the agency.

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