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NAS leadership spreading safety culture message

Walt Bishop, NAS deputy director of mission execution at Arnold Air Force Base, leads a safety culture presentation June 5. The purpose of the presentation, attended by a group of Arnold AFB craft personnel, was to remind employees to keep safety at the forefront while carrying out daily job duties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Bradley Hicks)

Walt Bishop, NAS deputy director of mission execution at Arnold Air Force Base, leads a safety culture presentation June 5. The purpose of the presentation, attended by a group of Arnold AFB craft personnel, was to remind employees to keep safety at the forefront while carrying out daily job duties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Bradley Hicks)


Contained within much of the work that goes on at Arnold Air Force Base and across the Air Force Materiel Command are inherent risks.

“If you think about it, we test rocket motors, jet engines, aircraft, satellite systems, and to do that we have to generate temperatures higher than the surface of the sun and colder than the cold side of the moon,” said Walt Bishop, deputy director of mission execution for National Aerospace Solutions, the Test Operations and Sustainment contractor at Arnold AFB. “We work with rocket propellants, exotic fuels, high pressures, low pressures. We deal with extremely high speeds much faster than a bullet.”

How the workforce should handle the risks encountered each day and the consequences of unsafe decisions were the primary topics of a presentation recently given by Bishop. 

In an introductory video, NAS General Manager Dr. Rich Tighe reminded employees that safety is one of the NAS Core Values.

“What I would remind you is values don’t change, so the safety of you, your colleagues and our workforce will always be a Core Value to us at NAS,” Tighe said. “Along with that, let me emphasize the safety of our workforce is not only a value, it’s our number one priority.”

Using concepts of the Heinrich Safety Pyramid to demonstrate his point, Bishop said unsafe decisions have a way of adding up over time. Bishop said for every 10 unsafe acts an organization experiences, that organization can expect to experience a near-miss incident. Such incidents may go unrecognized, unwitnessed and unreported, but they count just the same. For every 10 near misses, an organization can expect to see one minor injury, the next level up the pyramid. Minor injuries can include cuts and scrapes and may still go unreported.

For every 10 minor injuries, an organization can expect to again move up the pyramid and experience one serious injury. These are injuries requiring a doctor’s care and time away from work to recover. For every 50 to 100 of these injuries, an organization can expect to complete the pyramid and potentially experience a fatality.

“It starts to explain why the Band-Aid on your hand and the scrapes and the minor misses that we experience are important,” Bishop said of the pyramid. “It’s an indication of what’s brewing.”

According to Bishop, these figures align with the history at Arnold, and the pyramid has reached its apex at AEDC in the past. There have been 16 recorded fatalities at the Complex since 1958, with the last occurring in 2001.

Bishop said the safety presentation was prompted by recent evidence that showed the pyramid was on its way to being built once again.

“We’re putting this thing together block-by-block, and what we’ve got to do is slow down how quickly we put those blocks in this pyramid,” he said, “and the only way you can do that is to affect the amount of risk you’re willing to accept to get your job done. We’re comfortable now doing certain things that we don’t need to be comfortable doing.”

While events near the top of the pyramid are more random in nature, the whole pyramid is supported by the safety culture. Bishop said an organization can only control its safety culture, which determines how quickly it generates unsafe acts. Be it a near miss or serious injury, the organization generally does not control the outcome of an incident once it begins. Outcomes can be random in nature once the unsafe act is committed.

Bishop defined safety culture as the insistence or resistance of an organization to carry out duties safely. Safe decisions could include wearing the right personal protection equipment, ensuring the correct tool is selected for the job, completing thorough hazard analyses, and sharing clear and accurate work instructions.

From the Model and Machine Shop to test operations, each area at Arnold has its own safety culture, Bishop said. Together, these form the overarching AEDC Safety Culture. Bishop said the stronger the safety culture is, the fewer unsafe acts will be generated.

As an analogy, Bishop pointed to the number of fatal wrecks that occur each year in Tennessee. Even with the introduction of cell phones, which would presumably lead to more fatalities, and safer vehicles, which would presumably reduce them, the number of fatal wrecks occurring annually in Tennessee has consistently hovered around 1,000 over the years.

“What I think is happening here is that each of us will accept a certain level of risk that we’re comfortable taking,” Bishop said. “Some of us are comfortable driving 80 miles per hour down the interstate. Some of us are comfortable not wearing a seat belt. But we all have this comfortable level of risk that we’re willing to accept. Until you change the risk that we’re willing to accept, you’ll continue to get 1,000 fatalities.”

Even with a strong safety culture in place, risks will always be present, Bishop added. He urged employees never to “roll the dice” while carrying out their duties, even in the face of schedule pressures.

“On those day-to-day decisions, you’re better off to take your time, think the job through before you get into it,” he said. “If you don’t have the right tool, back up. If you don’t trust the lockout/tagout, back up. Ask the questions. Make sure your lockout/tagout is right. When it comes to confined space, make the right decisions. Don’t just jump in there. We’ve got procedures for that. Follow the procedures.”

He added if employees are being asked to intentionally make unsafe decisions, the matter would need to be addressed by leadership.

Bishop said base leadership has joined NAS leadership in making an employee’s ability to stop a job if he or she is uncertain of a clear expectation.

“They’ve all made it very clear that it’s not what they want you to do – it’s an expectation,” Bishop said. “If you’re getting ready to get into something that has risks that you can’t manage and you’re just rolling the dice, they expect you to stop that job and report it to your supervisor, who will address the issue.”

Bishop further urged employees to look out for one another and make the right decisions.

“Safety culture - this isn’t just a wage game. This isn’t just the guys out there turning the wrenches,” Bishop said. “This is wage. This is safety. This is salary, admin support. Everybody out there has a part in this.”

Tighe said the goal is to ensure each employee returns home at the end of his or her shift in the same condition as when the shift began – without injuries. He added that workforce safety is a higher priority than any cost or schedule objective.

“What I would note is these are not contradictory objectives,” Tighe said. “I believe we can keep safety as our number one priority and still meet our customer objectives and, in fact, I believe that by being safe, by being disciplined in our operations, by following work instructions, and being very aware of risks, we actually can be more productive for our local customers and for test customers that come here for us to support their programs and their missions.”

A link to the video will be made available once it has been approved for public release.