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The Army Corps of Engineers Culture of Safety

A standard business practice for employees and contractors

“Without support from senior leadership, this would not get done. Our senior leaders actively support this effort,” he said. “We don’t want safety to be an afterthought.”


Managing Contractors

Another major concern is with federal government contractors, who perform much of the work both domestically and internationally. Contractors must follow safety requirements and file accident prevention plans prior to the start of any work. They also must submit daily quality control data, to include safety, to USACE quality assurance representatives, who also play an integral role in enhancing the safety culture within USACE.

“You never find safety at the top and quality and production at the bottom. If you have good safety, the other two are at the same level,” said Ron McDonald, a USACE safety specialist.

McDonald is one of USACE’s employees with some of the agency’s toughest tasks – promoting safety at worksites in Afghanistan. During a typical review, safety and occupational health specialists may

  • check for availability and use of safety shoes and hard hats;
  • demonstrate safe methods for stacking cinder blocks at construction sites;
  • photograph damaged equipment and request replacement material;
  • climb improvised ladders to check stability; and
  • make dozens of other safety checks to reduce accidents.

All contractors must have site safety and health officers (SSHOs), who interact with USACE quality assurance representatives to explore common workforce problems and then provide solutions. In Afghanistan, for example, USACE quality control staff identified numerous challenges such as workers lacking appropriate protective equipment; working at unsafe heights without fall protection; and digging deep trenches without exit routes.

The issues are challenging in part due to the limited English-speaking skills of contract employees. Yet USACE promotes safety through modeling behavior, and it also has safety manuals in Afghanistan’s primary languages, Pashto or Dari.

Army Corps Culture of Safety

Brett Young, engineering technician and Nellis Air Force Base, Las Vegas, Nev., Resident Office, watches contractors to ensure they are complying with safety procedures at the construction site for the Lightning II joint strike fighter aircraft maintenance hangar. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo

“It took the U.S. centuries to develop its safety culture. We should not expect the safety culture in Afghanistan to develop overnight,” McDonald said. “The good thing is that most contractors appreciate our guidance and advice and are eager to improve their skills.”

USACE also publishes its safety manual in several languages, including Arabic, Spanish, Japanese, Korean, and German. Translators also are typically in place at many sites.

“We perform a large amount of work overseas. Contractors can come from [all] over the globe,” Wright said. “We have a moral responsibility to ensure that all of our team members, including our contractors, go home as healthy or healthier after a day’s work than when they arrived.”

USACE uses the same set of requirements for its own staff as well as contractors. Looking at the number of accidents resulting in lost work time, USACE contractors had .22 accidents per 100 workers in fiscal year 2011. The federal government reports an average of 4.7 per 100 workers nationwide in the general construction industry, based on 2009 data. “We’re at a low rate compared to the overall construction industry, and our contractor team should be very proud of the safety programs and systems they have in place,” Wright added.

USACE’s focus on safety extends beyond its worksites in the United States and abroad, however. With millions of visitors a year to USACE-managed recreation sites in the United States, the agency conducts extensive outreach to the general public. Many of the recreation sites include lakes and swimming facilities, and USACE has robust water safety programs to educate the public, Wright said. Park rangers provide classes and education, while brochures and other materials are distributed upon entry. Loaner life jackets also are available.

But this safety effort extends beyond parks and recreation sites. USACE staff members also go out into nearby communities to offer water safety and boating classes to the general public. This work is done in coordination with park rangers and USACE safety staff. “We’ve seen a large decrease in accidents and fatalities as a result of this effort over the years,” Wright noted.


Moving Forward

Looking toward the future, a key USACE goal for 2013 is continued refinement of the Army Readiness Assessment Program, a tool for on-the-ground risk assessments. These assessments contribute to development of safety plans for each USACE worksite with appropriate staff training.

To promote feedback loops, an online survey also asks questions of USACE employees on how their organizations view safety. Among other questions, it asks employees whether they believe they have been adequately trained to do their jobs.

Such feedback is essential for the further evolution of the Army Corps of Engineers culture of safety. “That’s saving taxpayer money and getting our mission accomplished in a more effective manner.”

From diving and dredging to construction projects in war zones, USACE always is performing risky work, said Wright. “We can’t stop doing work that has a risk to it. But we want to do it in a way that manages and minimizes risk to the greatest possible extent.”

This article originally appeared in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers: Building Strong®, Serving the Nation and the Armed Forces 2012-2013 Edition.

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