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Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) closed out calendar year 2021 with the lowest number of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recordable mishaps in the depot’s history.
“This is a fantastic accomplishment and speaks volumes about our safety specialists, our safe site leaders and the attentiveness of each member of the FRCE team in mitigating risks,” said FRCE Commanding Officer Col. Thomas A. Atkinson. “At the depot, safety is more than a program or a process, it is a core value. Our people, they are our warfighting capability. Protecting them and maintaining a safe work environment is not only the right thing to do, it is absolutely crucial to our mission.”
OSHA defines recordable injuries or illnesses as those that result in days away from work, restricted work or transfer to another job; medical treatment beyond first aid; or loss of consciousness. A case also meets the recording criteria if it involves a significant injury or illness diagnosed by a physician or other licensed health care professional.
In 2021, FRCE recorded 36 mishaps, a 27% reduction compared to the previous year and a more than 60% decrease compared to mishaps recorded in 2016.
“Throughout the years, the Safety and Occupational Health division at FRC East continued to educate employees, develop policies and procedures, and implement them,” said Angelo Owens, the safety director at FRCE. “All of that, after a certain number of years, comes together to have positive effects. I believe that’s what we are experiencing here. Not only does the command support and promote certain policies and procedures in the way we perform work, we also have managers and supervisors who understand what their responsibilities are and employees who know what their responsibilities are.”
Owens and Brian Snow, the assistant safety director at FRCE, both cite participation in the OSHA Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) as an important catalyst in forming the safety culture that exists at the depot. VPP recognizes employers and workers in the private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries. To participate, employers must submit an application to OSHA and undergo a rigorous onsite evaluation by a team of safety and health professionals.
“We started on this road in 2006 with our involvement in VPP,” said Snow. “Just getting the command into the mindset to do it actually got us on the right road to reducing injuries. The application process in itself is a huge undertaking. They came in to evaluate and we did it.”
In 2019, FRCE achieved the OSHA VPP Star Status in two of the depot’s application areas – smaller subsections of the expansive facility, each consisting of no more than 500 employees – becoming the first naval aviation command to reach that level.
“VPP Star is the highest recognition you can achieve with OSHA,” said Owens. “When you say you are a VPP Star site, it states that your safety and health programs exceed OSHA regulatory requirements in an exemplary manner. When you consider that there only 21 VPP Star recognized sites in the entire Department of the Navy, and that we are one of them, it’s pretty exceptional.”
According to Owens, collaboration and discussion play important roles in the VPP process.
“It’s an all hands effort and that’s the way OSHA approaches it,” said Owens. “We all need to be involved in the process. Communication is very important because it allows employees, supervisors, managers, and leadership to talk about the issues we come across and how we can minimize the operational risk that we have here.”
VPP participants are re-evaluated every three to five years to remain in the program.
“We’ll be re-evaluated in January of 2023,” said Owens. “What that means is that representatives from OSHA out of Atlanta, Georgia, will come to our facility for a week. They’ll bring with them a team of people who will be walking around and asking to see our programs, see our documentation of trainings, and conduct periodic inspections. They’ll be going out talking to our supervisors and employees to substantiate that what we are doing on paper is what we are actually doing within our facility.”
FRCE’s participation in VPP has not gone unnoticed. The Department of the Navy is now collaborating with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) on a study aimed at evaluating VPP’s effectiveness in reducing noncombat injuries. This study will evaluate five VPP establishments by comparing VPP units to non-VPP control units matched on size and function. The Navy chose FRCE as one of the five VPP participants to take part in the study. This comes as no surprise to FRCE’s commanding officer.
“We are one of five Navy sites selected to be analyzed and modeled for possible DOD-wide adoption,” said Atkinson. “This is a great opportunity for us to share our journey and the 10 years of data we have collected since starting VPP at the depot. I am extremely proud of our safety program and can think of no better place DOD could come to learn from. Whether it is engineering or production, logistics or safety – this is where people go to find solutions.”
The command was also recognized by the North Carolina Department of Labor for its efforts to keep the workforce safe by being presented two “Million Hour” awards and the depot’s fourth consecutive “Gold Award.”
To meet the Gold Award standard, an organization must have had no fatalities during the award year, and also post a days away, restricted or transferred (DART) rate at least 50 percent below the industry average. For FRCE, that means the aircraft maintenance industry. Million Hour safety awards are given to firms which accumulate one million employee hours with no injuries or illnesses involving days away from work. Subsequent awards are given for each additional one million employee hours with no injuries or illnesses.
FRCE also recently completed International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 45001 recertification. ISO 45001 is the world’s international standard for occupational health and safety, issued to protect employees and visitors from work-related accidents and diseases.
“You can never let up,” said Snow. “Often, you reach a goal and the tendency is to take your pack off, but we haven’t been doing that. We just continue to press forward. It’s a continuing effort.”
Owens agreed, adding that continuous effort is vital considering the scope of the depot’s safety program.
“We’ve had a good year, but that was last year,” said Owens. “We’re trying to press the gas harder because I believe when you are performing well you need to work even harder to maintain that level of performance. There are more than 53 safety and occupational health programs we oversee in various capacities ranging from radiation safety to fall protection. We are doing a good job, but I believe we can always do better.”
While Owens and his team are proud of FRCE’s safety record and achievements, he says the main focus is on protecting the depot’s most important asset.
“As we continue to put aircraft out, we have to ensure we are doing it in a manner that protects our employees,” Said Owens. “We genuinely care about the FRC East family and we want to ensure the people who come here to work have a safe and healthy environment to work in.”
FRCE is North Carolina's largest maintenance, repair, overhaul and technical services provider, with more than 4,000 civilian, military and contract workers. Its annual revenue exceeds $1 billion. The depot provides service to the fleet while functioning as an integral part of the greater U.S. Navy; Naval Air Systems Command; and Commander, Fleet Readiness Centers.
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