Pentagon Efforts Target Preventable Accident Reduction
By Jessica E. Andrews
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2009 Accidents on and off duty pose a greater threat than combat to U.S. servicemembers’ lives, and Defense Department leaders continually strive to eliminate them.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has challenged the department to step up its investment in safety technologies, incorporate best safety practices of the corporate world and hold leaders accountable.
“We have no greater responsibility than to take care of those who volunteer to serve,” Gates said.
Since July 2003, the Defense Safety Oversight Council has worked to reduce preventable accidents in the military, which affect operational readiness and cost the department more than $3 billion annually.
Military officials regularly review statistics examining preventable accidents across the board for all services, including civilian “lost day” rates, private vehicle fatality rates, injury rates and aviation Class A accident rates – those that result in loss of life or aircraft damage of more than $1 million.
A data-driven approach established metrics to show which areas were doing well, and which needed greater prevention efforts -- information that routinely is presented to Defense Department leaders so they can see where improvement is needed and focus efforts in that direction.
In fiscal 2002, civilian “lost day” rates, or days in which an employee missed work due to an injury, cost the department almost $200 million, with 157,337 lost work days. In fiscal 2008, the department had 74,681 fewer lost days, saving more than $90 million.
Officials credit the improvement in part to programs such as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s Voluntary Protection Program, which the Defense Department adopted. VPP is a recognition program managed by OSHA for work sites with world-class safety and health management systems.
The VPP Center of Excellence helps military installations set performance-based safety and health management criteria for management commitment, employee involvement, hazard recognition and mitigation and employee training. Success in implementing these criteria results in reduced workplace injuries, illnesses and lost work days.
For example, Marine Corps Base Barstow, Calif., went from having the worst lost work day rate in 2005 to one of the best in 2008. The number of Defense Department VPP Star sites has risen dramatically over the past year; the department now has 25 VPP Star sites, with seven pending review with OSHA this year.
The department also is reducing private vehicle accidents, which were down 32 percent in fiscal 2009, compared to fiscal 2002. The Navy’s fatality rate reduction was the highest, with a 60 percent decrease, and the Air Force had the best continuous reduction rate, with an overall 31 percent decrease.
With initiatives such as the Travel Risk Planning System, or TRiPs, and the Civilian Driver History Profile Pilot, department officials are focusing on potential risks before they become fatalities.
TRiPs is a Web-based tool used to identify active duty servicemembers who might be at risk for a motor vehicle accident while traveling on leave or pass. The Driver History Profile Pilot monitors off-base driving records and prepares customized reports to leadership, who can direct at-risk people to training and other interventions.
A task force focusing on private vehicle accidents identifies root causes and hazards through in-depth data analysis; the results determine the thrust of safety media campaigns.
To address military injuries, the officials have focused on serious vehicle accidents and sponsored initiatives such as an alert device to reduce Humvee rollovers. The military training task force also sponsored an initiative that successfully demonstrated a brace that can prevent and reduce ankle injuries by parachuters in training jumps.
Sports-related injuries also receive attention. The Leadership Injury Prevention Training distance-learning course gives leaders information and tools to prevent injuries at their level of influence. The online courseware recently earned the prestigious Bronze Omni Intermedia Award for outstanding media production that “engages, empowers and enlightens.”
“Safety is about preserving our combat assets,” said Joseph Angello, the Defense Safety Oversight Committee’s executive director. “In the middle of a war, we prevented needless loss of life and equipment, and are continuing on that downward trend. DSOC metrics show that overall accidents have been reduced every year since 2002.
“There is significant improvement based on where we were,” he continued. “Accountability and leadership are essential in achieving our safety goals.”
Defense Department officials have embraced technology that makes military equipment safer and have initiated programs to raise awareness of preventable accidents.
Class A aviation accidents, for example, have seen a 45 percent reduction from 2002 to 2009.
After Air Force Col. (Dr.) Peter Mapes, a pilot-physician for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, briefed Navy Vice Adm. Thomas Kilcline, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Naval Air Force, on the importance of using a GPS system onboard any military service helicopter to reduce accidents the military labels as “controlled flight into terrain.”
Kilcline made using a GPS system a top priority for naval aviation. Such accidents are the leading cause of death among Army and Air Force helicopter crews, claiming an average of six aircraft and 10 people per year.
“Every single life costs us dearly as a nation,” Mapes said. “This GPS system is remarkable in detecting weather hazards and other dangers that could easily save a pilot’s life.”
(Jessica E. Andrews works in the readiness programming and assessment directorate in the office of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.)