By Meghan Vittrup
American Forces Press Service
June 13, 2008 - After being called one of the 100 worst federal workplaces in the United States in terms of safety, Naval Air Station Key West, Fla., now is ranked as one of the best. In a ceremony yesterday at the Key West air station, the installation received its "Star Status" flag, the highest recognition in the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's Voluntary Protection Program.
NAS Key West is the first Defense Department installation to receive this status.
"It is very gratifying to be a part of something that makes such a significant difference in the workplace," Navy Capt. J.R. Brown, NAS Key West commander, said. "Not only did it change how we look at safety, it also changed how we interact with each other. It opened communications even more. We all have taken time to pat ourselves on the back, but excellence in safety is about vigilance."
Ron Cooke, safety manager at NAS Key West, volunteered the naval air station in 2002 to take part in the defense employee Worker Safety Demonstration Program, a congressional mandate to help enforce better safety and health practices among military and civilian employees. The naval air station also used an integrated management system to evaluate and identify problem areas and then effectively and safely run the installation, Cooke said.
With the integrated management system providing management tools and laying the groundwork for progress, Cooke said, mishaps at the installation were reduced by 50 percent in the 2003-2004 time frame.
With the groundwork in place, the installation could take part in OSHA's pilot Voluntary Protection Program, which outlines the requirements needed to develop and implement effective safety and health-management systems through incremental steps.
An OSHA administrator helps lead pilot program participants in stages, checking on progress and evaluating steps taken to improve the workplace.
Any challenge comes with obstacles, the first being a resistance to change. "At first, there was resistance to the kind of change we wanted [employees] to do," Cooke acknowledged.
Cooke also explained that the installation had problems in the retention of personnel and had language and education barriers to overcome.
"We met in the middle," Cooke said. "The management was working down while employees were working up. We were working for the same common goal: going home the way you came to work."
In October 2005, as the installation was preparing to submit paperwork to progress into the second stage of the program, Hurricane Wilma hit. The hurricane flooded the installation, and the paperwork for VPP was lost. But officials recovered from the setback, and on March 2, 2006, they were ready to once again submit paperwork. By Nov. 3, 2007, the third and final stage was complete.
NAS Key West then was recommended to receive a Star Status rating in the Voluntary Protection Program.
"We paved the way for the challenge program," Cooke said. "I think people are proud of the recognition. I think the people are proud of what they do."
Cooke admitted there was a time when he was embarrassed to go to work, but said he became excited about the challenges that VPP would bring. He credits all the installation's employees for bringing about such a profound change in the workplace climate.
"Without [NAS Key West employees], we could have never accomplished this," he said. "This was my goal, but I could never have done this without their help."
Cooke also credited Robert Barnikow of the VPP Center of Excellence for his help in mentoring the naval station. Cooke said he cannot say enough about Barnikow and what he has done for NAS Key West and other military installations.
"I think we are all taken aback somewhat at how successful VPP has been for us," Brown said earlier this week as he prepared to turn over command of the naval air station in a ceremony today, the installation's 350th straight day without a lost work day caused by a work-related safety issue.
"Every day we see the counter at the main entrance reminding us," he said. "We feel great about working at a place that has a safety program that we are all a part of."