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Safety first.

Everyone in the Air Force has heard the battle cry "Safety first!" However, is safety really first? More accurately, is safety first with everyone or just senior leaders? Why? Can or should anything be done about it?

Looking at past safety reports, you'll find that safety in the Air Force is actually pretty good. In fact, the U.S. Air Force is among the top if not the safest military service in the world. That said, ask any Airman about the Air Force safety program and you'll get various responses from "Safety is Paramount" to "wear your seat belt" or "wear steel toed boots" and "wear reflective belts at night" or other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) type answers. Looking further you'll find over 90 percent of Airmen today don't even know the safety Air Force Instruction (AFI) series, nor the basic tenant of the Air Force safety program, which is "to identify and control hazards and to prevent mishaps." In comparison, almost every Airman knows details of AFI 36-2903. Some even still quote 35-10. But of the two, which will help prevent in-jury, damage, or death?

To further illustrate, I recently asked some coworkers if they knew what ORM was. Happily, most answered correctly, "Operational Risk Management." Again taking it further, I asked if they knew how many steps are in ORM or--even more daring--what one of the steps was. I found dwindling numbers knew that ORM even had steps much less that it was a six-step process. Only 2 percent knew any of the steps. More specifically, as alluded to earlier, this knowledge was heavy at the top. Almost every commander and chief knew ORM and the tenant behind the Air Force's safety program. Safety knowledge and skills progressively faded: from commanders to flight commanders to superintendents to senior NCOs to sergeants to company grade officers to supervisors and finally to the Airmen. Most concerning is that people simply shout "ORM" for the sake of mission accomplishment verses actually applying the steps to calculate and mitigate risks.

Another interesting observation is that our current Air Force safety program's basic guidance, Air Force Policy Directive 91-2, was last updated in September 1993. While it's possible a well-written document could survive 12 years of dramatic change, what other safety programs like safety training are still as viable in 2006 as they were in 1993? Looking back to 1993 and the glory days of Cold War manning, the Air Force had an abundance of specialized Air Force Specialty Codes (AFSCs) in every shop. Although additional duties haven't really changed today, most of those duties like safety were dedicated positions. There were dedicated safety representatives in every shop from every AFSC; not an additional duty, but a primary position. Today, however, there is significantly reduced manning, more additional duties per person, increased exercises, and combat training and expeditionary operations. Thus, safety is one of many additional duties in a squadron finding itself on the back burner where "mission comes first." The mentality is safety is someone else's concern, principally, the safety representative. Added up, the formula for increased safety incidents in the future begins to take shape.

As for training, the current average Airman's individual safety training program is an awareness program verses imparting skills and internalizing the safety vision. Typically, individual training consists of a day or two or sometimes an hour or less of death by PowerPoint in basic training or at officer training school, then a computer-based training refresher or some sort of "read this and sign here" type training at your unit and then back to the shop where the primary job comes first. This may work for safety awareness, but does it really provide any practical safety skills? Other than memorizing some snazzy catch phrases or learning enough not to get into trouble, the majority of the Air Force is safety illiterate when it comes to actually applying safety in every aspect of on-and off-duty life.

So, does the Air Force safety program need any improvements, and if so how can we improve the safety culture of our Air Force? With increased expeditionary operations and dwindling numbers, it couldn't hurt to curb our bet to improve safety and thwart looming disaster. The silver lining is to make every Airman, from an Airman Basic to a General, a safety expert by indoctrinating them from the beginning: basic training, officer training school, in the academies, ROTC, FTAC, or at an individual's first duty assignment. Again, while some may claim we already do this, the reality is we don't impart skills and abilities, only "awareness!"

What if instead of a quick "Welcome to Aim High AFB" brief, we required everyone to become familiar with the basic safety publications, know the three safety disciplines, learn the basic tenants of safety, the base safety organization from Chief of Safety to squadron, supervisor, and work center representatives? What if they all had to, as a capstone for example, conduct a safety inspection on an actual unit or at least accompany or assist a safety inspector during an inspection to really see and understand what they're looking for, why, and how to prevent accidents? How about actually learning the ORM process with a practical scenario at the end? The payoff is hundreds and possibly thousands of safety representatives in every unit and work center across the Air Force instead of relying on some NCO, supervisor, or safety individual yelling at you just before you do something dangerous.

In the end, safety is leadership. In reality, everyone is a leader or potential future leader. Thus, everyone needs to be a safety representative. If you walk into a work center and ask, "Who's the safety rep for this unit," everyone should raise their hand with the idea that at least they're responsible for themselves and fully knowing why and how. Once internalized, even if they're never directly assigned a safety position, everyone (enlisted, officer, and civilian) will have the basic safety insight, vision, and instinct to carry them through their careers making it a part of their daily lives.

By Maj David F. Wachtel, Tinker AFB, Okla.

Photo Illustrations by TSgt Amber L. Jordan-Baloy, LangleyAFB, Va.
COPYRIGHT 2006 U.S. Department of the Air Force
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Copyright 2006 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Air Force
Author:Wachtel, David F.
Publication:Combat Edge
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2006
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