Ripples in the Water

  • Published
  • By Capt Christy L. Zahn
  • 60 AMW/SGPFT
Imagine sitting by a pristine lake: the view is "perfect," the temperature is outstanding, and the lake is like glass -- not one ripple is visible. You think to yourself, "Man, this is perfect." You grab a pebble and toss it into the lake. You watch in amazement as the initial pebble ripple builds ... one ring, two rings, and before you realize it, the whole lake is disturbed. The moment is lost, and the lake is no longer serene. This scenario is the same issue that happens when an accident or incident occurs. 

Initially, the mission was moving along; everything seemed perfect. Then without warning, as we were unloading the crew bus, it was hit from behind, and the bus driver who was helping us unload was hit by the bus. "Plop," the first ripple formed. I watched in horror as the tug started heading toward the aircraft. I jumped out of the way and the tug hit the fire bottle and dragged it toward an engine before coming to a stop. Another ripple began to build. I ran over and checked on the bus driver who was lying on the ground with the bus over him. I asked him if he was OK. He responded, "My legs hurt terribly and so does my back." A bigger ripple began to build. I told the driver not to move as I grabbed his radio to call for help. I then ran over and checked on the tug driver. He was in shock, although he said he was not injured. Another bigger ripple built. By then, the pro super showed up. I asked him to call for assistance. He sat in shock. Again, I repeated my request: "Listen, you need to call for medical assistance; the driver is hurt." He finally called for medical assistance. The radio operator responded, and we finally heard sirens in the distance.

The ambulance crew packaged up the bus and the tug drivers. Another still larger ripple formed. Our mission was cancelled because we couldn't get the aircraft out of parking with the tug crashed in our parking spot. An additional ripple formed. The tug driver was released without injury, although obviously shaken. The bus driver, however, was not as lucky; he sustained injuries to his legs and neck. Another ripple cascaded outward. The driver was released to his home and was off work. Another larger ripple formed. His unit had to pick up his schedule while he recuperated. Another larger ripple formed. His family had to sustain a larger burden because of the accident, and the Air Force had to pay for medical care. An even larger ripple formed. It was identified that the tug had a malfunction, and the driver, while trying to stop the vehicle, put his foot through the rusty floor, and an additional larger ripple formed. Before you realize it, the pristine lake is no more, and an accident had occurred. 

What if you had the potential to maintain the pristine lake? What if you could stop the pebble from dropping into the water? Would you do it? What if I told you that you have the potential to stop that pebble before it hits the water? With the help of the Voluntary Protection Program, you have the potential and the responsibility to stop an incident or accident before the ripples ever start. Imagine with this new culture, if you could reduce the ripples by as little as 52 percent (based on DoD VPP CXFactsheet Web site). That's 52 percent more funds available to purchase that new equipment you need and want, or 52 percent more money to use toward educational TDYs. Maybe even 52 percent more man-hours to assist you to stop that ripple before it starts. Would you do it? What if you and your wingman could join together and increase that 52 percent exponentially? Even better yet, what if every military, civilian, and volunteer member of your unit, squadron, group, wing, MAJCOM and Air Force were working to stop those ripples? Just think what our outcome would be. 

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration initially proved the old motto "We are better synergistically than we are alone" back in 1979, with the implementation of an experimental proUSAF gram. In 1982, that experimental program became what is known as VPP. It was designed to recognize outstanding efforts of employers and employeeswho have achieved impeccable occupational safety and health programs and who have driven their injury and illness rates below the national average. It builds on a four-stage process: management leadership and employee involvement, worksite analysis, hazard prevention and control, and safety and health training.

The pinnacle of VPP is "star" status, which means that a company has developed and maintained an impeccable comprehensive safety and health program.  As a result of this program, that company achieved an injury and illness rate at or below the national average. Such companies are recognized for their ability to control workplace hazards that may hinder their employees' performance. Furthermore, these companies will be re-evaluated by OSHA every three to five years to ensure they continue to be the pinnacle of the field. 

"Merit" status is the foundation for star status. In order for a company to be recognized as merit status, they must have good safety and health management systems, although the systems need a bit of finessing to be judged "outstanding." Within the merit status, the companies have shown a desire to achieve star status and must do so within three years of achieving their merit status. While in this program, the companies will be evaluated by OSHA every 18 to 24 months. 

The last program in VPP is called "star demonstration."  In this program, the companies have demonstrated outstanding safety and health programs, although they are non-traditional and do not necessarily meet the star program status. However, if their programs are considered to be worthy of star status, then OSHA will consider approving changes to the star status. Companies operating under the star demonstration program must be evaluated by OSHA every 12 to 18 months. 

The Department of Defense spends from $10 billion to $21 billion annually on injuries and illnesses. In this case, the pebble is a boulder and the lake is tumultuous. In FY06, the Air Force spent more than $29 million in equipment damage and/or personal injury. Furthermore, the Air Force paid more than $125 million for civilian workers compensation costs. In addition, the Air Force is losing tens of thousands of workdays toward our mission from preventable injuries and illnesses annually. The ripples continue. 

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, "World-class organizations don't accept preventable accidents." Furthermore, he challenged us to reduce our mishaps by 75 percent by 2008. The Department of Defense encouraged all of the services to pursue VPP, and the Air Force embraced the culture of VPP in 2006. Since then, many bases have started their journey toward star status. 

We stand shoulder to shoulder with more than 1,200 other companies that are involved in VPP. Many of the nation's top companies are using VPP to meet and exceed their goals of reducing injuries and illnesses on and off duty. Forty-seven of the Fortune 200 companies are among the VPP elite. These companies have seen some phenomenal reductions in their mishap numbers. In one year, three US Navy shipyards have seen a reduction in workers compensation costs by $2 million collectively.  Furthermore, more than 100 General Electric sites are VPP, and they have seen a cost savings of $61.5 million per year. Since becoming a VPP site, Lockheed Martin has seen a reduction of their workers' compensation costs of more than 75 percent. That's a lot of ripples! 

The moment before the pebble hits the water, you have the potential to reach out and grab it before it drops toward the bottom of the lake and starts the ripples. That moment is now! With a criterion that is performance-based, we can enhance our safety and health programs, and in turn, reduce the number of pebbles that are thrown into the lake. Within the VPP culture, our new culture, we have to invest in everyone's safety and health, both on and off duty. Could the tug in the mishap sequence have been stopped? Was it a known malfunction within that type of equipment? How could we have protected the driver? Did any of his co-workers/wingmen know that the floor was rusting out? These are all questions we need to ask as we look at the ripples in the lake. Everyone -- from management, leadership, and employees -- needs to mitigate all the potential hazards for the good of each other. Worksite analysis needs to be accomplished before engaging in a task. How many rocks can we prevent from dropping into the lake? After we have identified those hazards, how can we mitigate them? Was the tug in good working order? If not, we need to get it repaired before using it again. Another rock can be added to the pile. Lastly, by engaging in safety and health training, we can develop a stronger knowledge of this paradigm shift in culture and catch the rocks before they hit the water. 

Shoulder to shoulder, hand in hand, we too can reduce our injury and illness rates on and off duty with the help of VPP. By amplifying VPP into programs such as Wingman, AFSO-21, ORM, CRM, MRM and AFOSH, and then applying VPP principles to our programs, thus enhancing our current culture, we have the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the top companies in the world. VPP allows the best, the elite organizations to save millions of dollars each year and millions of rocks each year from creating ripples. As we stand with those companies and embrace the culture of VPP, we can enjoy the pristine lake once more. It is with this hope that we embark on the journey of VPP and the road to continuous improvement.