Safety Third – An Army Context

By CourtesyMay 8, 2023

Inaugural Unit Safety Officer Workshop
The 1st Theater Sustainment Command Operational Command Post Safety Office hosts the first Unit Safety Officer training on Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, March 24th, 2023. A total of 16 soldiers ranging from company to brigade were trained. The course's aim was to develop unit safety officers with limited experience in risk management, tactical safety, and mishap reporting. The majority of students had served as the appointed safety officer for less than a week, hence their response to the training was overwhelmingly positive. (Courtesy photo 1st TSC OCP Safety Office) (Photo Credit: Courtesy) VIEW ORIGINAL

By Capt. Carl Amolat

143d Expeditionary Sustainment Command

CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait – During the 143d Expeditionary Sustainment Command’s safety stand down on February 11, 2023, Soldiers were introduced to the Mike Rowe phrase, ‘Safety Third.’ The video espouses a central theme of safety being everyone’s responsibility, not just a unit’s safety and occupational health specialist or unit safety officer.

During Rowe’s video, he speaks of serving aboard an Alaskan crab fishing boat in the Bering Sea, in which the captain said profit was his priority, not safety. The captain is quoted as having said his job was to “bring you home rich.”

The U.S. Army’s mission is “To deploy, fight and win our nation’s wars by providing ready and prompt and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the joint force.” The underlying focus of the commander’s intent is to bring the unit home victorious, not necessarily bring the unit home safe.

The often-repeated cliché of ‘Safety First’ directly contrasts the stated goal of both business and warfare. So at first blush, safety isn’t even to be considered at all. That is a mistake.

Neglecting to consider safety has the potential for catastrophic losses for Army formations. One instance in the author’s experience involves a vehicle rollover of a Stryker combat vehicle at the National Training Center in March 2011. An unsecured ammo can struck one Soldier in the face, causing an instantly fatal mid-face fracture. Additionally, due to an unsecured ammo can, the brigade lost a very experienced platoon sergeant with fifteen years of service.

It is easy to see how disregarding safety can lead to unnecessary risks. However, attempting to reduce risk to zero or risk aversion is equally problematic. Trent Lythgoe’s “Our Risk Averse Army: How We Got Here and How to Overcome It” illustrates this point. Lythgoe states, “The uncertain nature of combat combined with a natural inclination toward loss aversion means Army leaders will struggle to correctly weigh potential gains against potential costs as Brig. Gen. Donahoe suggests.”

Furthermore, Lythgoe describes the pivotal 1942 Battle of El Alamein, in which the fight for North Africa swung firmly in favor of the Western Allies. Here, Gen. Bernard L. Montgomery communicated to a subordinate brigade commander, Brig. Gen. John Currie, that he was willing to accept 100 percent casualties in Currie’s brigade to defeat Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps.

Assume prudent risk is one of the six tenets of mission command, and in the above scenario, Montgomery chose to do so. Moreover, history vindicated him given that he routed Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein, Egypt, driving them into a steady retreat.

The Army’s focus on peer/near-peer threats will result in commanders assuming risks similar to Montgomery’s. However, in this particular case, safety preserves combat power.

As the example with the Stryker crew earlier illustrates, had the crew ensured the ammo cans inside the vehicle were properly secured, they would not have deployed to Afghanistan without an experienced platoon sergeant.

For the 143d ESC and subordinate commands, ‘safety third’ entails that Soldiers and first-line leaders ensure that personnel are aware of hazards and properly trained to use nearby equipment.

For example, a Soldier is assigned to change the tire on a palletized load system to support the movement of ammunition from Camp Buehring to Camp Arifjan. The tire must be changed to enable this mission to occur. Therefore, safety third would entail the Soldier ensuring they have the proper tools, equipment, and supervision to accomplish the task.

At every echelon, from corps all the way down to individuals, Soldiers and leaders have responsibility for safety. Precautions as simple as securing hatches and toolkits inside of armored vehicles prevent cascade effects stemming from singular mishaps.

In short, safety is everyone’s responsibility because it preserves combat power, allowing commanders the ability to win the fight.