Our Experts At Your Service

Safety Center subject-matter experts who collectively have over 300 years of Navy experience work hard to carry out our mission of saving lives and reducing or eliminating damage to our resources and Sailors.

STORY BY CDR JASON EATON

Naval Safety Center Assessment Assist team members assess the SMS provide a holistic picture for the immediate superior in command (ISIC) of both safety culture and climate across their respective subordinate units. Comprehensively assess alll operations and ancillary support. US Navy photo by Visual Information Specialist John W. Williams

The Naval Safety Center Assessment team members discuss a recent assessment  (U.S. Navy photo by Visual Information Specialist John W. Williams)

I have one of the most rewarding jobs in the Navy. I get to help Sailors stay safe. As the surface ship division head, I am fortunate to work with a team of around 15 outstanding military and civilian subject-matter experts who collectively have over 300 years of Navy experience.

This team works hard to carry out the Naval Safety Center’s mission of saving lives and reducing or eliminating damage to our resources and Sailors. The team truly comes into its own whenever we have the opportunity to get out in the fleet to conduct an afloat operational safety assessment, or AOSA. When our team comes aboard your ship to conduct an AOSA, we are bringing all the tools at our disposal to specifically help you improve your ship’s ability to keep making the work environment safer, and not just to make another list of discrepancies for your Sailors to fix.

We travel worldwide to visit almost every ship in the active fleet every three years, in all of their homeports and sometimes even out at sea. The team sees many good things, and many bad things—but mostly we see good Sailors working hard to get the job done. This opportunity has been given to us to try to help Sailors to not just accomplish their own missions, but to accomplish all missions effectively—and safely.

The Safety Center team and I work for two different customers: the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and the commanding officer of each afloat unit. Through the CNO (our primary customer), we also have access to the fleet commanders. Our responsibility to the CNO is to identify safety issues in the fleet that could prevent ships and Sailors from meeting their mission requirements. Hence, every piece of equipment on a ship matters to us, and every Sailor is an irreplaceable asset to be guarded.

We monitor the Web Enabled Safety System (WESS) for trends and issues that are being revealed by the hazard and mishap reports submitted to the Safety Center from the fleet. We review every major mishap  and help draft recommendations for improvements. We interact with the engineers, naval architects, and planners who are building, maintaining and modernizing the fleet. We talk to the Board of Inspections and Survey as well as fleet oversight organizations including type commanders, afloat training groups and the immediate superiors in command to capture their inputs and observations. All of this gets distilled into good, actionable information that we use to make the fleet safer—the results of which we try to share with every Sailor in the fleet.

Our second customer is the commanding officer (CO) of each of our afloat units, and through him or her, the Sailors under their command. While our responsibility to that CO is in many ways similar to our responsibility to the CNO, it is in other ways exceedingly different. When the assessment team goes to a ship to help the CO, we do not go there just to look at lifelines and safety placards—we go there with the intent of helping the CO understand how well the ship is incorporating safety into operations and maintenance while accomplishing its missions. An AOSA is not an inspection, for there is no way the team can (or would) assign a pass or fail grade to an assessment. While we certainly do look at things such as adherence to safety regulations, operational procedures, and the status of safety equipment, we are really doing so as a means of gaining insight into a ship’s safety culture.

When the assessment team is onboard a ship, we have no way to unerringly determine the true state of a unit’s safety culture. What we do is not the same as reading a gauge—there is no specific scale or criteria for us to make a judgment upon. The scientific literature has developed some “discrimination tests” that can serve as useful guides for leaders, but we simply do not have enough insight on the unit to be able to use those tools effectively in the short period of time we are aboard. Using the discrimination tests requires observing a unit over time, while we are observing the unit for at most a day or two as they execute a very busy schedule. While the CO and immediate superior in command are in a good position to use those tests effectively, we simply do not have the ability to observe enough evolutions or behaviors over time to make unerring judgments.

Similarly, since we board each ship at different points in their training or deployment schedule, we do not have a good way of comparing one ship against another. What we are very good at is providing to a CO a list of observations of areas or events where the ship may be experiencing safety culture challenges, and those insights are based upon what my team and I have observed on the deckplates while interacting with the crew and assessing their gear.  To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we may not be able to say explicitly what all the pertinent elements of the safety culture for a specific ship are, but we know them when we see them.

The assessors’ primary purpose when going onboard a ship is to act as an outside set of eyes for the CO. Every CO has a picture of what they believe the safety culture of their ship is; before we depart the ship we will present the CO with observations that they can use to either substantiate or challenge this picture. Hopefully our observations will reinforce what the CO already believes, but there are times when our observations will challenge those beliefs.
The two most important tools we bring when we visit a ship are our experience and our checklists. We do safety as our job, not just as a part of it. The team is not distracted by other tasks and requirements when we are aboard; we are just there to look at safety.

While our primary task is gaining insight into the ship’s safety culture, we will find discrepancies while we are looking for those insights. That is part of our job, and we are good at it. We find discrepancies on every ship, and the list is pages long after every assessment. Bear in mind we do a lot of assessments and have gotten pretty good at spotting issues, and we have our checklists to focus our efforts.

Occasionally we find something new, but the vast majority of the discrepancies are things we have seen before. Checklists are the team’s single most valuable tool, and the most effective way to pass on lessons learned from the analysis of the safety data and the deckplates. If it is in the checklists, it is there for a good reason. It should come as no surprise that most of the items in the checklists are not new. These checklists have been refined and updated for well over 30 years, which is as far back as the collective memory of my team goes. We continuously validate them and update them to ensure that they are as current and useful as we can make them.

When the team steps aboard, the intent is to get through as much of the checklists as we can. This provides several things that will be useful to both the ship and our team. At its most basic level, the assessment will give the ship a specific list of items that must be corrected to comply with Navy standards and safety regulations.
Two things are important to keep in mind about our discrepancy lists: the list will never be all-inclusive, we can’t find everything wrong in a few hours; and the list is more about giving the ship’s leadership an idea on how well they are self-assessing than it is about creating another list of things to fix.

Hopefully, most discrepancies will be known items that already have plans in place to correct. We annotate this whenever we find it, for it is a positive indicator for safety culture—just as we will if a discrepancy gets fixed before we leave. Ultimately, each of these discrepancies is a great opportunity for my team to interact with the crew. Whenever possible, we ask questions to find out what Sailors know about the issue, and what they have done about it. If they knew about it, what kept them from acting upon it? Were there any obstacles to correction that we can highlight for the command? Did they feel their part was done once they reported it up the chain, never having mitigated the hazard until it could be properly corrected? Every one of the discrepancies we find and the answers we receive helps to build a snapshot of the ship’s safety culture that we can later provide to the CO.

While we are executing our checklists, we are walking around the ship and observing. If we come across an ongoing operation or evolution, we stop and watch it. Our observations on things such as procedural compliance, incorporation of operational risk management and time critical risk management, whether Sailors are wearing their personal protective equipment, or how well the Sailor’s on the ship look out for each other as they move around the ship all build the picture that we provide to the CO before we leave.

The picture we present will be based upon the references in our checklist. Everything we write into our reports has a reference to back it up, or it will not make it into our report. The ship will receive the list of discrepancies, and we’ll also point out the items which we believe are relevant to the unit’s safety culture. As the team leaves a ship, we leave having learned things for both of our customers—the CNO and the CO. We have identified safety issues for correction, enabling us to monitor for fleet-wide trends. We leave the ship’s leadership with a list of discrepancies to be corrected. This list is not just to help get the ship into compliance, but also to compare to what the ship had already identified in order to validate self-assessment capability. We trained Sailors, assessed the knowledge level onboard, and gave the CO a snapshot of safety culture indications we saw to compare to his or her own observations. Most importantly, we hope we have helped prepare the ship to keep making itself safer for the future, to carry it through until our next visit in three years.

After all, we’re here to help … Really.

 

CDR Eaton is the head of the surface ship division in the Afloat Safety Programs Directorate at the Naval Safety Center.

CDR Eaton is the head of the surface ship division in the Afloat Safety Programs Directorate at the Naval Safety Center.