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Posted 7/31/2014

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By Gerald Rogers
Norfolk District Public Affairs

PORTSMOUTH, Va. -- The bulletin board just inside the door of Craney Island project office here has a folder with blank reports for “near misses.”

Above the folder is a solitary “near miss” report – a worker nearly fell, and, as a result, cited that equipment needed to be serviced to prevent any future injury to coworkers.

The reports, and the culture change around them, are how the staff of the Craney Island Dredged Material Management Area here earned the coveted Voluntary Protection Program Star recognition from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

“Achieving VPP Star status takes dedication, planning and commitment … it’s not an easy road and starts at employee level,” said Dan DeWease, Norfolk OSHA office regional director, during a VPP flag-raising ceremony held at Craney Island July 10. “Craney Island joins an elite group: you are now one of less than 2,400 exceptional workplaces, out of 8 million national work sites, to achieve VPP Star status.”

Five years ago, an email caught Carlos Quinones’ eye – the Corps’ headquarters was seeking organization workplaces good enough to apply for the VPP. It kicked off the journey to Craney Island’s VPP Star status.

“They just don’t let anyone into the VPP,” said Quinones, Craney Island’s acting chief. “We had already established a pretty decent safety program here and once they determined that we were a good candidate to apply for VPP, the Corps safety office sent us a very long list of things we needed to document.”

CIDMMA, also known as Craney Island, is a 2,500-acre confined dredged material disposal site owned and operated by the Norfolk District, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. And although the Craney Island staff practiced good safety and health management, their program wasn’t well documented. They would spend the next three years meticulously processing and documenting every area of their safety and health management program.

They started by hiring a contractor that specialized in preparing organizations for their VPP application.

“They helped us tremendously and it was money well spent,” Quinones said. “This small investment meant fewer injuries and illnesses, and the cost-savings in reduced workers’ compensation premiums would pay huge dividends in the future.”

The Craney Island Safety and Health Management program also had to have 100 percent employee participation, where everyone’s voice was equally heard and every employee was responsible for each other’s safety.

That led to the formation of a Craney Island VPP Safety Committee, which meets every month.

At the meetings, every employee reports on his or her safety responsibility – the idea was that if every employee is involved and has a responsibility in the safety program, they’re invested and more likely to be safe, Quinones said.

“Every employee has stop-work authority, so if they feel what they are about to do is unsafe or outside their normal routine, they can stop work immediately, return to the office and discuss it,” Quinones said. “We then meet, get everyone’s input, and initiate an activity hazard analysis, which culminates in a written plan of action that we all sign off on. That helps reduce risk when working outside the norm.”

Terry Bass, a Portsmouth native, is a heavy equipment operator and a 15-year veteran at Craney Island. He’s the site’s Roadside Coordinator and has had to stop work occasionally when the road conditions became too bad.

“We put up a safety hazard sign, initiate our activity hazard analysis and come up with a plan to fix it,” Bass said. “Then we move on.”

Craney’s Safety and Health Management program linked leadership and employee involvement.

“We’ve worked hard to re-build a culture here where our employees aren’t afraid to report hazards and near-misses either anonymously or directly to me,” Quinones said. “Previously, if an employee had reported almost falling off of a ladder, he or she may have felt that it would have been used against them in some sort of way. Now the employees understand the importance of these reports and that the near-miss they don’t report could result in an injury or fatality to one of their colleagues.”

Employees also had to be assured that if they reported a hazard that the district management team would immediately address and fix the problem through either an engineering solution; by purchasing necessary safety equipment; or by having employees wear personal protection safety equipment that will shield them from the hazard.

Three years prior to being accepted as a VPP candidate, Craney Island experienced a fatality when one of their truck haul contractors, upon finishing his work day, suffered a massive heart attack.

“An AED wouldn’t have saved him, but we started thinking that it took about 25 minutes to get the ambulance out here. We had to change our ambulatory response time,” Quinones said.

The team realized that given Craney Island’s remote location, it would be wise to have every employee First Aid/CPR/AED certified, and have an automatic external defibrillator installed at the site in the event they had to become first responders.

Six months after installing the AED at the Craney Island facility, a call came in that a contractor employee had passed out on site. Quinones alertly grabbed the AED and administered a life-saving shock that revived the unconscious employee.

Incidentally, during their five-year journey toward VPP Star status, Craney Island experienced only one reportable accident.

“One of our mechanics was changing a spring-out in a door, and the spring just shot loose and pinched his skin. He required two stitches, but didn’t miss any work time,” Quinones said. “The OSHA team that evaluated our program marveled at our great injury rate.”

Craney Island doesn’t have an on-site industrial hygienist. That’s where Kent Balden, the district’s safety office industrial hygienist, would come and review and conduct site analyses to determine employees’ daily job hazards.

As the team began documenting their safety program processes, they included job hazard analysis for each employee. Every year, employees review their job hazard analysis to accurately convey to management what their duties are.

“One of the elements of our program that OSHA found exceptional was that we treat these employee analyses as a living document,” Quinones said. “As you work for the government, even though your job description says X, Y and Z, tomorrow you may also be doing A, B and C. If someone retires, for example, you may inherit those duties. So as your duties increase, your job hazards change, also.”

The OSHA inspection that determined if Craney Island would earn VPP Star status lasted about seven hours and was two-fold: first, they interviewed all the Craney Island employees asking, “How does management treat you?” and “How is management responsible for safety?”

“And as they toured the entire site, they grilled me on different scenarios, such as, ‘If you had an accident over here, how do you respond?’” Quinones said.

The second part of the evaluation involved a four-plus hour grilling where all of the Craney Island safety files, more than 1,200 documents, were opened for OSHA inspection.

“They wanted to see everything from our hurricane plans to the documentation for all of our safety certificates. Anything under the sun that related to safety, they wanted to look at,” Quinones said.

During the drive-around, Quinones said that if the OSHA inspection team saw any compliance issues – extension cords that shouldn’t be there – that would eject the office out of the program for 90 days before being reassessed.

The Craney Island team was ready for the challenge because an integral part of their safety and health management program is monthly site self-inspections.

“I’ll inspect or bring in and rotate employees every month to gain a fresh set of eyes,” Quinones said.

That safety regimen may have been the difference between a pass and fail, when about two weeks before the OSHA inspection, a safety hazard issue was discovered and corrected.

“I found something in our men’s bathroom that I had been looking at for 13 years. I never realized it was a safety hazard until one day…it was right there in front of me,” Quinones said.

The men’s bathroom used to contain a row of metal coat hooks on the wall. Entry into the bathroom is at a higher level than in the hallway leading to it. If anyone were to trip off that threshold, you are suddenly at eye level with the coat rack.

The inspection team, part of OSHA’s new Special Government Employee program, consisted of an OSHA official and team members from other VPP Star sites: General Electric, NASA, and Cintas, a private company that makes work uniforms and apparel.

As they wrapped up their inspection, one of the inspectors, while not authorized to say if Craney Island would be recommended for VPP Star status, did comment that they had a “pretty decent program.” A couple days later, Quinones received an email from that inspector that Craney Island had been recommended for VPP Star status.

Approval came down June 11, along with a VPP Star flag for use during an official Craney Island flag-raising ceremony.

Craney Island joins only 53 Defense Department work sites with VPP Star recognition. Craney’s project office and Louisville District’s resident office in Columbus, Ohio, are the only two Corps work sites to earn VPP Star status.

Leonard Litton, director of Personnel Risk-Reduction at The Pentagon, oversees the safety and occupational health program for Secretary Jessica L. Wright, undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. He attended Craney Island’s flag-raising ceremony on her behalf.

“Secretary Wright sends her congratulations. This was not an easy task. You sent a big message throughout the Defense Department that a small organization gets it! Having a safe and healthy workplace…caring about employees from leadership top to bottom…when you get a group of people behind an important task and see it through…well done!” Litton said.

Colonel Paul Olsen, Norfolk District commander, presided over the official raising of the VPP Star flag. He invited all the Craney Island staff to join him.

“I need some help. If your boots are worn and dirty and your hands are rough, come on up here,” Olsen signaled to the Craney Island team.

Olsen later remarked that as a soldier for 26 years, he’s seen horrific accidents – training fatalities, units stand down while they get the report, do forensics, that everybody goes crazy for a few weeks and then, back to business as usual.

“I consider Wayne Gretsky the NHL’s greatest hockey player. When asked why he would break away and never skate to the puck, Gretsky said he always skated where he thought the puck would be. We must also figure out where our safety risks are and get to those risks,” Olsen said. “I have a one-word slogan on my desk – BEST. Today, the Craney Island team has accomplished the commander’s goal – you’re the best!”