Your Safety Procedures Suck: Execution Edition

My first week in Korea while Serving in the US Air Force ended in an unexpected twist. It was my first active duty assignment, and as such, I was assigned to two weeks of acclimation training called First Term Airman’s Center, FTAC for short (everything in the military has an acronym).
On Friday afternoon, our class was expecting an early release so we could head downtown and party with the rest of the base.

Instead, we received a surprise visit from a Captain who worked in the Inspector General’s (IG) office.

The Captain, in turn, introduced us to a Technical Sergeant who would be assigned as our supervisor the following week. The base was going to be conducting a chemical warfare exercise, and since we were not yet released to our “shops” we were not eligible to participate. Instead, we would be helping the IG test out a new procedure.

The procedure had been penned at the PACAF (Pacific Air Force) headquarters at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii. In support of the test, the Command Chief (highest ranking enlisted member) was being flown in to observe. We were all in awe of the opportunity and excited to participate in something so high profile. We received instructions to meet at the IG at 0700 on Monday morning where the Tech. Sergeant would give us further instructions.

Monday came quickly and we all assembled outside on the steps to the building. The Tech. Sergeant held an officially sealed manila envelope and a few other pieces of paper. He told us that our mission was to transform an ordinary building into a chemical fallout shelter. The IG had chosen to perform the test on the Family Support Center and the envelope held the procedure. After explaining that the test would be conducted using spearmint (like the bubble gum) gas to spray the building, he extracted the “procedure.” I’ll paraphrase what it said so I don’t run the risk of saying anything super top secret:

  • Find a building
  • Get some duct tape and trash bags
  • Tape trash bags to the windows and doors
  • Hide inside the building
  • Don’t die

If you’re not laughing at that, it’s probably because you’ve written a procedure as awful as that one. I jest. You’ve probably written much worse. Ok ok, I’m kidding. You can imagine the confusion when we read that procedure. We all knew it wouldn’t work, but our Tech Sergeant was determined to make it.

So began the “tests.” We spent the first day attempting to duct tape plastic tarp (we upgraded) to all of the windows and doors of our makeshift shelter. In the humid Korean summer, the tape barely clung to the stucco walls. By the end of the day, we had battled honorably and mostly achieved our goal. There were corners sagging and the plastic certainly wasn’t airtight, but we left with a feeling of accomplishment. We were instructed to return at 0600 the following morning in full chemical gear.

In the morning we lined up single file and were sprayed with bubble gum scented gas. We were then instructed to “DECON” with activated charcoal pads. That essentially meant that we were filthy for the rest of the day. We then “hid” inside our shelter. At about 0900, we smelled the telltale smell. Enemy gum gas had penetrated our defenses!

From that point, we regrouped and began to brainstorm. All of the FTAC Airmen sat mostly on the sidelines as the Tech. Sergeant and two Staff Sergeants tossed out ideas. I remember them being at a loss until one of the Staff Sergeants spoke up.

“What if we screw it into the walls?” The FTACers looked at each other in disbelief. I figured no one would even consider that.

“Yeah, that could work,” said the other Staff Sergeant.

“Ok, if you think so. Let’s go get some drills and screws,” Said the Tech. Sergeant.

“But, Sir,” one of the Airmen spoke up. “Won’t the holes…” The Staff Sergeant who came up with the asinine idea laser beam stink-eyed him and he quieted down. With no more dissent in the group, we rounded up the drills and screws got to work.

The next morning we repeated the DECON ritual and then waited for the smell. It rolled in like clockwork and we were forced to regroup once again. This time we wised up and decided to use caulking to seal the plastic to the windows and doors. That did the trick. We ruined the building but accomplished the mission.

What I’m getting at here is simple: Don’t legislate from your desk. So often, safety professionals sit in their offices and dream up new policies, procedures, and standards without considering the people who will be forced to use them. We write detailed “roles and responsibilities,” tell employees what they “shall” do, and make up arbitrary rules that only impede progress on our worksites. What is actually needed is a partnership with those employees. In our case that summer in Korea, the IG would have saved tons of man hours and a little bit of embarrasment if they had consulted with the end users before writing their magnum opus.

If you are in the procedure writing business, do everyone a favor. Go out to the people youíre writing for (sometimes itís easy to forget weíre not writing for ourselves) and tell them what youíre trying to accomplish. Then ask them how they could best achieve that goal. Youíre much more likely to get buy-in this way and even more likely to get a procedure people can execute.

On the off chance you do write a crap procedure even when you follow that advice, try to have enough humility to adjust it. People respect leaders who can admit they aren’t perfect more than they do authorities who get indignant.

Writing is a necessary skill that is often overlooked in the safety profession. Iíll never profess to be the best, but I do know my way around words. Since so much of what we do is based on communication, I think itís a disservice if weíre not at least competent. For that reason, Iíll be continuing this series in the weeks to come. If you like what youíre reading, please subscribe so you donít miss it.

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