Center, Union join forces for workforce safety

  • Published
  • By Damian Housman
The Voluntary Protection Program is making progress, according to Warner Robins Air Logistics Center and Union officials, but the journey will take time.

"We really began our VPP journey in August of 2004. We didn't know it was VPP then, but that was when we experienced an industrial accident that was our wakeup call," said Brig. Gen. Brad Heithold, Center vice commander. "If you look at other institutions which have started their VPP journey, they also started with some earth shattering event like that."

The accident that August resulted in the Focused Area Risk Reduction program under Maj. Gen. Collings, in an effort to change the culture at Robins. That was followed by Operation Risk Reduction. VPP is a continuation of the move toward cultural change to embrace safety and health. "I call it VPP now, but we didn't call it that then," said General Heithold. "Root cause analysis teams were in place to go through 1,800 plus write-ups and get to the heart of the problem. The people involved were made up of management and employees."

"Beginning in 2006, we took note of VPP and established core teams and a steering group," said General Heithold. "Our objective is to create a safer working environment where people are empowered to take action. People shouldn't look at a safety situation as some one else's problem. Under VPP, people are involved in their own safety."

Tom Scott, president of American Federation of Government Employees local 987, is certain labor is as committed as management to the cultural change.

"To most workers, VPP is just an acronym now. However, the idea is gaining momentum, where employees take control of their own safety environment," said Mr. Scott. "Labor is committed to VPP on several levels, mostly with education. We have the commitment from management, and it is starting to trickle down, through the wings, the groups and the squadrons. We were once number two in DOD on work-related injuries. We have reduced injuries quite a bit, but we're still in the top 40 for lost workdays and injuries."

Mr. Scott said we now have the opportunity to give employees a vested interest in their own work environment.

"That will change the mindset, much like we did with FOD. Employees are now vigilant, and know what damage FOD can do to aircraft. We can put the same education process toward VPP, and it will work to improve the safety environment," he said.

How long it will take to fully implement VPP and see results is an open question. Both General Heithold and Mr. Smith are optimistic Robins will see results in as little as three years.

"Phase one was to educate management in the tenets of VPP. Now we're in the process of educating the workers. It will get traction," said General Heithold.

Mr. Scott agreed, judging from what he has seen. He and Doug Keene, 402nd Maintenance Wing vice director, talked to first line supervisors about VPP. Together, they spent a week going to every work area in the wing, explaining VPP.

Talking with supervisors in person is effective, but the union also has other ways of getting the word out to workers. The union has its own newspaper, mailings to members, membership and stewards meetings, billboards, and has 1,000 AFGE t-shirts with the VPP logo. The union and Center management are also sending their people to VPP star sites for training.

Empowerment of the workers for their own safety is a message beginning to be heard and understood.

"People are learning it's OK to point out unsafe practices and take responsibility for safety. We can produce, and we can do it safely," said General Heithold.

He pointed out that the culture today may attempt retribution against some one who drops a red card to stop an unsafe operation. "It must be the right thing to do to point out something unsafe. There must be action taken, without retribution," he said. Management and the unions are working on all cylinders to ensure everyone at Robins gets the message. May 21 witnessed the signing of the commitment to health and safety excellence and Occupational Safety and Health Administration's VPP. The signatures of Maj. Gen. Tom Owen, Center commander, Brig Gen Brad Heithold, Tom Scott, and International Association of Fire Fighters Local 107 president Rusty Adams formalized the commitment to assuring the Center achieves environmental, health and safety excellence. With this agreement, management and labor encourages all employees to be active partners and participants in achieving this goal as a way of life.

"The combination of management, the AFGE and the firefighters means there's no disagreement in direction. There is a deep commitment on all sides to buy into the program. We're doing it now," said Mr. Scott.

General Heithold has moved on to new challenges at Hurlburt Field, Fla. His final legacy here will be his devotion to the People First cause at Robins, exemplified by VPP. But it is a legacy shared by General Owen, Mr. Scott, Mr. Adams and every worker here who will benefit from the deep concern for safety in the workforce.

"We can't make this work without the entire workforce becoming a part of this, making safety everyone's responsibility. It can't be left to the people in the safety office," said General Heithold.