Maximizing mission readiness by minimizing safety risks

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Ryan Lackey
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs

Working with aircraft that supply global mobility to the U.S. military and its allies necessitates having many diverse Airmen specialists, workshops, offices and utility spaces to accommodate the rapid-paced needs of the Air Force mission.

Given the wide range of work areas, one unit plays an unexpectedly vital role in ensuring mission completion and doing so with pride.

“Bioenvironmental Engineering is the first stop in preventative medicine,” said Staff Sgt. Kyle Schmidt, 92nd Medical Group Bioenvironmental Engineering technician. “There are 82 industrial shops at Fairchild that we visit up to three times a year, depending on potential hazards within that work area. Our Airmen go out and identify what health hazards are there and control them before Airmen are exposed, or are over-exposed, in such a way that it causes health issues.”

A suspended heavy object or open flame may be an obvious safety threat, but safety issues can arise from unexpected places as well. For example: sanding off paint in the aircraft metals shop can release particles such as cadmium and chromium metals from the paint color, potentially harmful carcinogens that Airmen may be exposed to, said Schmidt.

“We are considering the Airman first and how their environment is affecting them, not the other way around,” said Senior Airman Matthew Metcalf, 92nd MDG Bioenvironmental Engineering journeyman. “We call these inspections ‘health risk assessments’ to look for hazards that may affect Airmen by asking questions such as: what materials are used or generated? Does it or can it harm people working there? Can we recommend something safer to improve the working conditions?”

There is a wide variety of working conditions at Fairchild and ensuring Airmen’s safety is crucial whenever they’re exposed to dangerous noise levels, extreme temperatures, high energy sources, hazardous machinery, confined spaces, ergonomic issues and any other health risks.

“It’s important to work with Bioenvironmental Airmen, as it’s easy to overlook things that are right in front of you all the time,” said Master Sgt. Mark McFarling, 141st Maintenance Squadron aircraft environmental specialist. “Complacency can be a factor in safety; whereas a squeaky floor may be a known hazard I subconsciously avoid, another Airman may not. If one Airman gets hurt, another has to work harder to compensate for the loss in manpower and in-turn increases their injury risk too. We can’t afford to have preventable things impact the mission and our morale.”

Inspections start by interviewing a shop’s chief of safety to review environmental, operational and safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Part of these inspections are about ensuring compliance to regulations,” Schmidt said. “To accomplish that, we help shops comply with OSHA standards of workplace safety during on-site inspections. This takes some of the burden off workers to focus on mission accomplishment by providing an outside eye to an environment that may seem normal to those working there, but we can spot the danger and help them remedy it.”

Safety may always be a priority, but accidents may still occur, as there are some tasks that have a higher degree of injury risk no matter how well you prepare or try to make safe.

“Some of this equipment is simply heavy or unwieldy,” McFarling said. “The potential for pinched fingers, impacts or dropping something heavy will always exist, but the mission needs the job to get done, so if we must take some risk to do it as quickly as possible, we’ll do it as safe as possible to make our shop better.”

Bioenvironmental Airmen complete annual health risk assessments by sharing a comprehensive report on possible exposures, risks and compliance to safety standards. Unit commanders use the advisory report to consider how best to balance mission success and taking care of their Airmen.

“Our role may not be visible to most, but our part is to help [base] leadership protect the health of Airmen,” Metcalf said.

Airmen are responsible for the success of the Air Force mission, as they are some of the best and most highly trained people in the world, making their safety a top priority for ensuring the global mobility mission can continue without fail today and every day.