When the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) presented its Voluntary Protection Program (VPP) Star status certification to Naval Surface Warfare Center, Indian Head Division (NSWC IHD) during a ceremony held on Sept. 7, 2012, it signaled the command's entry into a select group of Navy activities.
NAVSEA Commander, Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy, told a group of more than 400 Indian Head Division employees that earning the VPP Star certification was significant. "This is really special," he said. "You have joined an elite group. You are now one of eight activities within NAVSEA to earn this certification."
The VPP Star status certification is OSHA's highest honor and is bestowed on worksites with comprehensive, successful safety and health management systems. Achieving this status requires full commitment of the organization. McCoy said the Navy is a government leader in VPP, with half of all participating naval activities being in the NAVSEA enterprise.
Earning the initial certification takes about three years, culminating in a comprehensive worksite evaluation by OSHA that examines safety programs, work processes and site facilities. It also involves interviews with about 25 percent of an activity's workforce. The intent is to ensure that management and labor support the underlying VPP principles, particularly safety and health, trend analyses and processes such as communications, qualification and certification.
"Here at Indian Head Division, safety is not seen as something imposed from above," said NSWC IHD commanding officer Capt. Andy Buduo. "All our personnel take an active part in ensuring we operate properly and safely. That sense of teamwork is an integral part of the voluntary protection program, and is certainly a big part of our achieving star status."
According to McCoy, who has been personally involved in the VPP program since 2001 when he became the 80th Commander of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, VPP is about looking out for one another, while also accepting behavioral change.
Empowering everyone to improve safety
"VPP is about workers caring about each other to confront each other about unsafe practices," McCoy said. "That's something we aren't wired to do naturally. We tend not to confront our friends, buddies and coworkers, even when you know in your heart that something isn't right. It's tough to maintain that momentum, but the payoff is huge."
Dennis McLaughlin, NSWC IHD's technical director, said that VPP is really a partnership where everyone is responsible for and empowered to take action to improve safety.
"Managers may set goals and expectations, but real improvements come through suggestions and the actions of all employees," he said. "Taking action to correct a problem, no matter how trivial it may seem, not only helps yourself, it helps your co-workers as well."
Lynn Sinkler, vice president of American Federation of Government Employees 1923, said the benefits of getting involved in VPP was evident when the union was initially approached about the program in 2007.
"It's not often that the union and command can come to 100 percent agreement and sit on the same side of the table," she said. "This was a good thing and obtaining Star site status makes this a really great thing."
NSWC IHD's safety director, Ray Geckle, said that command-wide involvement has already benefited the command by involving employees at every level in the command.
"We have continuously improved the safety and health in our operations as a whole," he said. "Our implementation of VPP principles has resulted in lower occupational injuries and mishaps."
According to McCoy, the benefits of obtaining Star status extend beyond NSWC IHD's workforce. It also demonstrates to the local community that the command is world-class safe activity.
"This allows us to do the complex and potentially hazardous work that the nation needs," he said. "The fundamental underpinning is that the local community has the confidence that this place is being run in a safe manner."
While obtaining VPP Star status signifies the establishment of a sound foundation for ongoing safety improvement, it is really just one step in a longer journey. In about three years, OSHA representatives will return to Indian Head Division to conduct a recertification evaluation. Follow-on evaluations are held every three to five years, with site injury and illness rates examined annually.
"Today's event is by no means the end of our journey," Buduo said. "Obtaining and maintaining VPP star status isn't a sprint to the finish line, rather, it's more like a very long and continuous relay race."