KIRTLAND AIR FORCE BASE, N.M. --
What is safety? Safety is the state of being safe or not being dangerous or harmful; freedom from harm or danger or a safe place according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary and the Oxford dictionary gives its definition as the state of being safe and protected from danger or harm.
A safety professional may feel the job is broad and wide, requiring interactions with multiple agencies inside and outside the Air and Space Forces. They include investigating a variety of hazards and mishaps that may lead to or involve injuries and fatalities. On top of all that, mishap prevention calls for trending and analyzing a copious amount of data. Data that spans all plains of the injury field such as injury mechanisms, affected body parts, injury types, activities, different work-shops, installations, job specialties and so much more! Are we alone? No … here are a few great ways some teams at the Air Force Safety Center are tackling these same challenges.
The Department of the Air Force has a well-established and robust safety program in place to safeguard personnel. The programs assist personnel in identifying areas of concern and giving them the opportunity to be proactive in finding and fixing hazards before they occur. This is a multi-front approach working with other agencies and services to expand resources, knowledge and expertise.
The Air Force Safety Center’s Epidemiology Branch partnered with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health for the past five years to conduct several case studies, one being on finger, wrist and hand injuries and their affected job specialties. The partnership has provided a better understanding of common injuries associated with DAF specialties and explores possible solutions and/or recommendations for future mitigation and prevention.
“To better understand injuries it’s important to explore the various facets of injuries such as affected body parts, injury types, affected job specialties and work with civilian and federal partners when possible,” said Lt. Col. Heidi Stallings, AFSEC injury epidemiologist. “NIOSH has provided us wonderful expertise and support we otherwise would not have.”
In a separate analysis, AFSEC reviewed data from 2017 through 2021 for on-duty mishaps being reported throughout the DAF. Those most notably reported were slips, trips and falls with sprains and strains, lacerations, and head-strikes. The DAF saw a 13% decrease in head-strikes from the five year data pull.
Highlights from NIOSH and DAF efforts are shown below, providing a well-researched summary of safety data.
Finger / Hand / Wrist Injuries – NIOSH’s case study consisted of ten years of data, from fiscal year 2008 through 2018, covering injuries affecting fingers, hands, and wrists across aircraft maintenance and back shops such as civil engineering and metal works. These types of injuries accounted for 32% of all on-duty mishaps. The study identified that there were 14,552 noncombat finger/hand/wrist injuries in the United States Air Force during that timeframe.
The preliminary NIOSH study shows a 26% decrease in FHW on-duty injuries. Focus materials and training was distributed through the AFSEC public website, social media and other internal methods for utilization in safety offices and throughout the DAF to minimize and mitigate those injuries.
Slips, Trips Falls –This focus was on elevated working surfaces to include aircraft and vehicle maintenance across all work areas. Slips, trips and falls account for the third largest type of injury mechanism which in turn caused sprains and strains, and second in line to cause fractures and contusions. Fractures accounted for 44% in lost work days, due to fractures that may require surgery, recuperation or physical therapy with follow up medical visits. When proper risk management is used injuries can be avoided.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020, falls are among the top three leading causes of work-related death annually for workers in the United States. Falls in the workplace are avoidable, by taking extra precautions to find and fix fall hazards and taking the steps it takes to prevent them.
Sprains and Strains – When reviewed across all work areas, sprains and strains accounted for the top injury type for on-duty injuries due to slips, trips and falls in most cases. A general downward trend is noted for on-duty cases; although, a specific analysis is not available for the exact cause of the downward trend.
Head Strikes – The use of head protection, if and when feasible, is recommended in all work areas where head-strikes are possible. By wearing a bump cap or a hard hat, head injuries can be prevented. Aircraft maintenance had the highest number of head and neck injuries, 3.6 times higher when compared to Security Forces. Working on aircraft or the flightline has inherent risks involved; however, when proper risk management and a job hazard analysis is done, it can help alleviate those risks. Wearing the proper protection can help protect your head from lacerations or concussions.
Laceration injuries – The focus on maintenance, logistics and civil engineering showed 122 documented amputations from 2015 through 2021, 80% (97) affected fingers and accounted for over 76% of permanent partial disability cases within amputations overall. Working with a saw accounted for 13% of finger amputations.
The DAF has seen an overall decrease in on-duty mishaps, while a reduction in numbers is good, the goal will always be zero.
“We encourage every Airmen and Guardian to have open discussions on safety issues they see within their work areas,” said William Walkowiak, chief of Occupational Safety at the Air Force Safety Center. “Empowering Airmen and Guardians to get involved in their shops to minimize or mitigate hazards before an injury occurs will help continue the downward trend.”
No matter the workplace, the responsibility of mishap prevention and safe operations falls to every member of the Air and Space Forces to take the extra look around the work area to identify hazards and implement the controls necessary to minimize or mitigate them.
For additional information about occupational safety mishap prevention programs visit the Air Force Safety Center website at https://www.safety.af.mil/Divisions/Occupational-Safety-Division/.