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Safely taking care of your Airmen – ‘opportunities to excel’

  • Published
  • By Col. James C. Hodges
  • 6th Mission Support Group commander
Nearly 22 years ago when I was a young second lieutenant just out of the Air Force Academy, another lieutenant welcomed me to the squadron. After getting me settled into the unit, the lieutenant later presented me with an "opportunity to excel."

That lieutenant was moving to another job and wanted to hand off the additional duty of being the squadron safety officer. The lieutenant said it was no big deal, the squadron safety program was in good shape, and it basically just needed to have the paperwork updated.

Oh, and by the way, he said, there is an annual safety inspection coming up. Good luck with that.

Being a brand new lieutenant, I took what she said at face value. I walked around the various sections of the civil engineer squadron and saw that the paperwork appeared to be in pretty good shape. However, once the annual inspection began, the inspector, a technical sergeant from wing safety, soon had a different assessment of the civil engineer squadron.

Being a unit that does many industrial operations that can cut, smash, shock, burn, explode and accidentally hurt its members in many ways, the wing safety inspector expected a higher level of assurance that the civil engineer squadron would keep its members safe.

The unit's program was "paper deep" and needed a lot more hard work and attention to turn the culture into one that valued safety.

About halfway through the scheduled inspection, the chief of wing safety and the Civil Engineer Squadron commander had a meeting and determined that they would pause the inspection, aggressively address the safety problems in the unit, and then re-inspect the unit. The Commander, understanding my situation, laid out clear expectations. He also provided me with a superstar technical sergeant that had knowledge and credibility with the shops that do hazardous industrial operations.

We undertook an immediate surge to improve the squadron's safety program and to start the cultural change right away.

After a lot of hard work, overcoming the attitudes of "we've never done it that way," "I know what the regulation says, but that's too cumbersome," and investing some needed resources, the Wing Safety inspector came back through the squadron with a fine-toothed comb.

Much to his surprise, we had taken the squadron from its marginal safety status and made real improvements. People were now taking pride in how their sections met or exceeded the safety standards. When all was said and done the safety program was recognized as the best in Air Mobility Command.

Fortunately, this happy ending came to be because the Wing Safety inspector dug beneath the surface and highlighted some concerning trends. Luckily, it didn't take a significant safety incident or an accident to get the squadron's attention. This situation taught me a few very valuable lessons.

First, safely conducting our operations that can be inherently dangerous is paramount in taking care of our Airmen. Taking care of our Airmen means pushing them to go beyond what's easy and doing what's necessary, for their own good, even though it might not be popular at the time.

When the Airmen see that they have achieved a higher standard, they take pride in that accomplishment and the new standard becomes the norm.

Second, don't accept things at face value. Asking the hard questions and digging into issues below the surface level often enables us to find problem areas and make sure we take care of our Airmen. The technical sergeant from Wing Safety knew the right questions to ask and the right places to look to see if what was being said on the surface matched how things really were. If you are inexperienced or are in a position where you are unfamiliar with the operations under your stewardship, ask for opinions from outside experts. Their perspectives can help your understanding and help the unit improve.

Finally, find star performers, challenge them to meet high expectations, empower them, and oversee them as they lead the organization to new levels of excellence. Luckily, I learned these lessons as a young officer. That other lieutenant who gave me the "opportunity to excel" may have seemingly cast off a difficult additional duty at just the right time prior to an annual inspection. However, for me, it was a true blessing in disguise where I really did have an opportunity to excel and I learned some key lessons that have helped me throughout my career.