The 309th Electronics Maintenance Group achieved a long-sought goal in early June when it was nominated for Star status in the Voluntary Protection Program.
The notification followed a weeklong evaluation of the group’s safety practices by a six-member team led by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The nomination has been forwarded to the Department of Labor for a final evaluation and the status will likely be awarded later this year.
“This is proof of the dedication of the EMXG folks who have been improving their safety record for seven years,” said Dr. Dave Hansen, 309 EMXG Director. “There is very much a strong culture of looking out for each other at work and at home. I talk about people being our most important asset, and this is one instance where we put our money and our actions where our mouths are when we say that.”
When approved, EMXG will be the first organization on Hill AFB to achieve Star status, as well as the first Department of Defense installation to do so in OSHA Region 8, which includes Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, and North and South Dakota. Star is the highest VPP level.
The award recognizes the outstanding safety and health programs within the 523rd, 524th and 526th Electronics Maintenance Squadrons, and the EMXG business, engineering and quality offices. (A fourth EMXG squadron, the 525th, located at Kadena Air Base, Japan, wasn’t evaluated since OSHA doesn’t have jurisdiction in Japan.)
“The key to VPP is great management support and great employee involvement. Our management basically empowered our employees to be a part of their safety,” said Craig Buelo, who has been EMXG VPP Program Manager since 2010. “When the employees started reporting hazards in the work area, started having a voice in recommendations of how to fix them and could actually see things get fixed, that’s what really started pushing them forward.”
OSHA created the VPP in 1982 and federal worksites became eligible for VPP in 1998. To help implement VPP, Warner Robins ALC personnel created the Commanders Safe Site Challenge to develop an improved safety culture with employees. They broke down the OSHA criteria into Bronze, Silver and Gold levels that allow employees to learn how to recognize and report workplace hazards.
The Bronze VPP level recognizes basic understanding of the program. At Silver, employees are developing and implementing processes that will improve safety and health in the area. At the Gold level, employees and management have been working processes to improve the safety and health in the work areas. The American Federation of Government Employees Local 1592 supports the Hill AFB program as required by OSHA.
“EMXG started VPP in 2008, and some of the initial representatives went to Warner Robins to get ideas,” Buelo said. “The wing program manager brought back the example of the VPP SharePoint program, and EMXG customized it and created the EMXG VPP SharePoint. The Commander’s Safe Site Challenge was rolled out with EMXG earning the first Bronze site.”
Since then, EMXG became the first Ogden ALC group to complete the Commander’s Safe Site Challenge. The group was mentored by a team from URS/Battelle, a chemical destruction company that achieved VPP Star status in 2009.
“Their team would meet with us once a quarter and evaluate our areas,” Buelo said. “They’d tell us to make corrections in some areas, and advise us how to strengthen and build our program.” He explained that once an organization achieves Star status, OSHA obligates them to mentor others and help them achieve the same success.
“After reading and following guidance from OSHA and our mentor, we built programs that would drive employee involvement,” Buelo said. “URS/Battelle developed a program to get their employees involved called Employee Element Teams, and we adopted that.”
The first team selected “hazard identification and analysis” as their focus, and visited with employees to ask if there were any additional hazards or concerns. The team then got others involved, including engineering or facility representatives, to get the hazards fixed. Other focus areas were:
• Personal Protective Equipment and machine guarding, ensuring that employees correctly used their PPE, and that all machines had adequate guards in place to protect employees; and
• Readiness, to monitor employee preparedness for emergencies such as fires, shelter-in-place, active shooter and chemical spills.
Application and evaluation
After achieving Gold status, EMXG started a Star level application and submitted it to OSHA in September 2014.
“The regional VPP manager, Brad Baptiste, reviewed it in January 2015,” Buelo said. “He wanted more information on about 5 percent of the application so we went from a 43-page to a 53-page application when we were done.”
On April 9, after EMXG’s application was officially accepted, OSHA scheduled a one-week, on-site evaluation in June.
Buelo and his team wrote “awareness topics” focusing on areas OSHA would evaluate and on OSHA Rights — the right to a safe worksite, the right to stop work if someone thinks the area is unsafe, and the right to report to OSHA without fear of reprisal. Additional awareness centered on the four main elements of VPP — management, leadership and employee involvement; hazard prevention and control; worksite analysis; and safety and health training — and why each area was important.
“At that time, Dr. Hansen told all the squadron directors to go out with their VPP reps and talk to every single shop about the awareness topics and their commitment to safety,” Buelo said. “We have a primary and an alternate squadron rep and VPP reps in our support sections, and in every shop. That’s the pattern we follow to give employees a voice.”
The seven-member OSHA evaluation team, led by Baptiste, from the Department of Labor’s Denver office, arrived on June 1 and spent four days touring shops, interviewing employees and contractors, and talking with senior leaders and union leadership.
Other team members were Charlie Keegan, Marine Corps Logistics Base safety office, Barstow, California; David Butler, General Electric Energy Management, Louisville, Kentucky; Cathy West, GE Power and Water environmental health and safety manager, Boulder, Colorado; J. Hyte Johnson, Raytheon Missile Systems director of environmental health and safety, Tucson, Arizona; and Amelia Maule, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility, Bremerton, Washington.
The evaluation showed EMXG had “best practices” in areas of health and wellness, employee involvement and management leadership, emergency preparedness, hazard reporting systems, industrial hygiene and housekeeping. The team also recorded 50 noteworthy items ranging from decibel monitors and FOD cans to work area safety briefings and recordkeeping.
“At the closing conference, they went through and started showing the results,” Buelo said. “Brad Baptiste commented that most first-time Star site evaluations have one or two best practices — we had six that they identified. And the team members who told how they felt after the evaluation used superlatives like ‘best seen to date,’ ‘awesome’ and ‘outstanding.’
“We were then told that we were recommended to receive Star.”
A final report of the OSHA team’s recommendations, reviewed by EMXG, was sent to Baptiste for forwarding to the Assistant Secretary of Labor. Once the report is approved, a certified letter will be sent to Hansen, officially recognizing EMXG as a VPP Start Site. The group will then be awarded a VPP flag and a plaque, possibly in September or October.
“We’ve been told that once you’ve officially become a Star site, keeping it is harder than achieving it,” Buelo said. “We have to do an annual self-assessment, based on an OSHA template, then submit it yearly to our regional OSHA office in Denver by Feb. 15.
“In that report, we have to show we are coming up with programs for continuous improvement. We’ve already got ideas in the works for what we will do this year. If OSHA accepts it, we won’t have to do another on-site audit for Star sustainment for three years. Once we pass our first sustainment audit, we will go to three to five years. As long as we do our annual self-sustainment audit and meet the obligations, we will remain a Star site.”
EMXG VPP team members also are asked to mentor others, as they were by URS/Battelle. New mentors are trained and certified by OSHA to assist with the program when needed.
“It has been a seven-year journey to get here,” Hansen said, “because you can’t change the safety culture overnight. I’m ecstatic to be on the receiving end of this. Other group directors — Rick Buhl, Sherel Hardy, David Schwartz, Jim Lengyel — came before me and they were willing to make that dedication and take this to the next level.”
Buelo, too, praised the group’s 690 employees who almost unanimously bought into the program.
“That’s the way it needs to be — everybody needs to work together as a team. The success of EMXG has been patterned all across the complex, and it’s attributable to VPP,” he said. “Other groups are getting close to being ready to submit for Star and we will be there to help to close the gaps. We know what OSHA will look at, we know what documentation is needed, and we know how the employee culture is built. As long as the employees and management are willing to make it happen, they will be successful.”