'Building Strong' in Afghanistan also means building safe
December 10, 2012
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Dec. 10, 2012) -- Throughout the Afghanistan Engineer District-South area of operations, where dozens of Afghan National Security Forces installations are under construction, safety and occupational health specialists visit job sites daily to make sure laborers are protected from unnecessary risks.
"A person ought to be able to go to work, earn a living and return in the same condition he left home in," said Bruce Barrett, chief of Safety and Occupational Health for the Afghanistan Engineer District-South.
The safety of Afghans and coalition troops continues to be the highest priority for NATO's International Security Assistance Force. To support the development of a safe and secure Afghanistan, the USACE is building dozens of high-quality military and police facilities where Afghan National Security Forces, or ANSF, will live, work and train.
Construction is one of the most dangerous industries, not only in Afghanistan, but worldwide. As such, safety and occupational health specialists inspect job sites and equipment, and observe practices to ensure safety standards and regulations are followed.
"Nobody should have to labor in a reckless environment," said Barrett, who deployed to Kandahar from the USACE Southwestern Division in Dallas, where he serves as the division's chief of Safety and Occupational Health. Barrett has more than 40 years experience in the industry and has managed the safety and occupational health programs to excellence at four of the nine divisions and several of the districts within the USACE.
"The people of Afghanistan have suffered decades of conflict which have ravaged public infrastructure and resulted in neglect for safety and health education in the Afghan construction industry," explained Geronimo Gomez, a safety and occupational health specialist with more than 35 years of experience. Gomez was employed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States for 25 years. After retirement from OSHA, Gomez taught safety and occupational health courses at the University of Texas in Arlington.
Years of war and neglect may have created an education and skilled labor deficit, and imparting a culture of safety is challenging, but not impossible, explained Gomez.
The USACE employs competent, experienced local Afghan engineers who provide on the ground quality assurance services and understand the importance of maintaining a safe and healthy work environment. Additionally, USACE safety and occupational health specialists educate workers about the benefits of maintaining a good safety and occupational health program during their site visits. Benefits which include reduced absenteeism due to illness or injury, less lost time, overall costs savings and most importantly, less fatalities.
More than 11,000 workers die annually in the course of their labor in Central Asia according to the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency with government, employer, and worker representatives.
Common hazards for construction laborers include falls, trench and scaffold collapses, electrocution and failure to use proper personal protective equipment.
"I look at fall protection, ladders, electrical work, excavations, protective systems and much more when I'm at a site," said Jeff Ice, a safety and occupational health specialist who deployed to Kandahar from the USACE New York District. "I observe the workers, I check their equipment, I ask workers questions and I listen."
For Ice, a former construction worker who survived a life-altering fall on the job that resulted in disability, safety is personal. Ice has worked for the USACE since 2010 and in 2012, won the New York Federal Executive Board Emergency Preparedness and Employee Safety Award. He was also named the New York District's Safety Employee of the Year for 2011.
One of the most important aspects of his job is recommending measures to help protect workers from hazards. Some contractors don't know how, don't know they must or don't care to provide safe work environments for their staff. Workers may not be aware they deserve to labor in safe environments and workers may not perceive hazardous job sites as dangerous.
"Safety and occupational health is influenced by social, economic and cultural factors," said Ice, who holds a master of science degree in safety management.
"Interviewing family members of a deceased person, who died as a result of an industrial accident, is a very emotional situation, especially if the death was preventable and was caused by employer or employee negligence," Gomez said.
Gomez investigates accidents to identify their causes and determine how they might be prevented in the future.
"As we build installations that will enable the Afghan authorities to provide effective security across the country, we must create the conditions for a healthy and safe work environment for the people who are building these facilities," Barrett said. "It's about protecting lives and every worker's life matters."