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Crossroads of the Marine Corps

 

Checking in with the Voluntary Protection Program

25 Feb 2016 | Adele Uphaus-Conner Marine Corps Base Quantico

“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” said Kurt Vimont, director of safety for Marine Corps Base Quantico.

“A slow marathon!” said Nelson Ocasio, inspection branch manager.

They were talking about the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), a safety initiative of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. VPP encourages supervisors and employees to take ownership of their own workplace safety by communicating with each other about hazard prevention and control, with the goal of reducing injury and illness rates to below the national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages.

“VPP is awesome,” said James Whitaker, VPP manager. “It’s about getting everyone involved in safety and improving communication and employee morale.”

“It’s a culture change. We’re fighting the old military way of doing things, where safety was an afterthought until someone got hurt,” Vimont said. “It’s about being proactive rather than reactive.”

VPP encourages the proactive management of risk. Employees think about their own safety practices and that of their coworkers before starting a job. Supervisors consider employee safety before making requests and mid-level managers look at the safety behavior of workshops they oversee.

A Department of Defense mandate dictates that all military installations have safety management programs. In 2013, Marine Corps Installations Command issued a policy letter indicating that it had chosen VPP to meet the DoD mandate.

“When that letter came out, we were already moving in that direction. We were ahead of the game,” Vimont said.

“All other safety systems are more process-oriented,” he explained. “You check in a box when a task is complete. This is the only one with a human element. If employees aren’t engaged, it fails.”

Col. David Maxwell, MCBQ commander at the time, approved the program. At a Nov. 5, 2014 ceremony, Base command and safety representatives signed a commitment to VPP.

Representatives from the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees — the union for government employees — also signed the commitment to VPP and Whitaker said their support is crucial.

“They meet with us monthly to express any concerns and/or share responsibilities for the safety and health of all bargaining unit employees,” he said.

Since 2014, the VPP Steering Committee, made up of Base and safety leadership and union representatives, and the subcommittee, made up of what Vimont calls “the worker bees,” have been chipping away at the 81 action items identified in a 2011 OSHA-conducted baseline survey. There are three phases for each action item: planning, implementation and sustainment.

“We are 60 percent complete with our planning phase and five-to-10 percent into our implementation phase,” Whitaker said.

The goal is to have an application for certification as a VPP Star Site in by the time current Base Commander Col. Joseph Murray leaves for his next post.

The Marine Corps logistics bases at Albany, Georgia, and Barstow, California, are VPP Star Sites, as is Marine Corps Support Facility Blount Island, Florida. Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, South Carolina, currently has an application in process with OSHA.

Raytheon, a Norfolk, Virginia-based defense contractor and VPP Star Site, is mentoring MCBQ on its VPP-certification journey.

Vimont said one of the most important achievements so far is the creation of a Supervisory Evaluation Checklist. The checklist gauges how well supervisors manage safety in their own units — whether they took steps to create a safe environment, whether they properly reported safety violations, etc.

“This is huge because safety wasn’t a priority in evaluating supervisors before,” Vimont said. “It’s a big win for us.”

It also pushes back against the biggest source of resistance to VPP — the idea that safety is the job of the safety division, not the supervisor.

“Safety is everyone’s job,” Ocasio said.

“A lot of people think safety is a show-stopper,” Whitaker explained. “They think it’s going to take time and slow things down. But it’s really a show-enhancer.”

Vimont said that MCBQ currently spends between $800,000 and $1.5 million on worker’s compensation. This money comes out of the general operating fund. After VPP was established at Beaufort, worker’s compensation payments were down to $20,000.

Whitaker said that the most important thing employees can do to improve their workplace safety is report unsafe acts and conditions.

“If we can do that, we’re good to go,” he said.

— Writer: auphausconner@quanticosentryonline.com