NAME WITHHELD BY REQUEST
I was a newly appointed safety officer for the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team with the Oregon Army National Guard and we were conducting annual training at the Orchard Combat Training Center located south of Boise, Idaho. I hadn’t yet attended the Ground Safety Officer Course, so I really didn’t know what I was doing. But as an armor officer, I was totally familiar with the multiple live-fire ranges our unit was conducting. I recalled my time as a second lieutenant and all the occasions in which an inspector or VIP visited us on the range. The first thing they wanted to see was our risk assessment.
What is a risk assessment? Many Soldiers think they’re nothing more than a CYA, or cover your ass. Though they may appear to serve that purpose, risk assessments were designed by the Army primarily to protect Soldiers. Their real purpose is often lost, however, when Soldiers complete a risk assessment solely based on requirements. It becomes an exercise in checking the box and filing it in the range book, ready for any visitor’s inspection. With the box checked, we feel we’ve completed the task and can now go on our merry way. But does this risk assessment do any good for the Soldiers on the ground? This led me to realize that any risk assessment is useless — unless it gets into the hands of the Soldiers.
I must confess I have had some experience filling out risk assessments. As a company commander, I remember the work I put into them. I filled them out with two thoughts in mind. First, I didn’t want any of my Soldiers to get hurt. Second, I wanted to make sure the controls I implemented actually got carried out. Reflecting on my years as a young lieutenant, I remember seeing the risk assessment for the first time when I showed it to a VIP. I often wondered what good it did if we didn’t look at it until someone asked for it.
I have been blessed in my career with outstanding noncommissioned officers who knew what needed to be done to keep Soldiers safe. I truly believe they were the only reason I was able to successfully conduct those ranges without any injury. Pure, dumb luck in getting to work with great NCOs is no way to keep Soldiers safe, though. It worked for me, but I would not want to push my luck. The Army has given us this tool called the risk assessment and it should be something more than a place filler in the VIP book.
As the unit’s safety officer for the annual training exercise at Orchard, I started inspecting the ranges. I walked up to the officer-in-charge, like I had seen so many inspectors do in the past, and asked to see the risk assessment. I’ve seen the panicked look flash across a young officer’s face when he or she has to tell me the risk assessment is back at the battalion headquarters, where it can be kept nice and clean.
When I was a young Soldier, I know if I had answered like that, I would have been standing at attention, listening to a very one-sided conversation with the inspecting officer. Though that may have been effective, it simply wasn’t my style. So I pulled the OIC aside. According to his risk assessment, I asked him about the hazards identified and the controls put into place to ensure the safe operation of the ranges. Again, he did not know. I educated that OIC on what his job was — keeping Soldiers safe. The risk assessments are the tools to help him succeed in that endeavor.
I continued drilling the OIC on how he intended to keep the Soldiers safe if he didn’t know what to do. I could see it in his eyes; he was relying on the NCOs just as I did. As we have already discussed, 99 times out of 100 that works because the NCOs in our organizations are top notch. But there’s the one time out of that 100 somebody does get hurt, so that’s not good enough.
The whole point of the risk assessment is to protect Soldiers, not simply to check a box. A risk assessment is written before the event. This allows the commander to look at what can go wrong and make his or her decisions without putting faces to the Soldiers and having to make decisions immediately. Careful decisions made without the pressure of time are way better than decisions made on the fly.
The job doesn’t end there, though. The risk assessment is just the start. No one can predict every hazard that may be encountered. In addition to briefing all of the Soldiers on the range about the hazards and controls, the next step is to make the risk assessment a living document. So, as issues are identified, the risk assessment should be updated. A clean piece of paper neatly printed and slid into a document protector is nice, but I will always be happier to see some handwritten additions or deletions. That shows me someone on the ground is using the risk assessment to its highest potential. It shows me that someone is actually using it and thinking about safety.
Remember, keeping Soldiers safe is the goal; it’s not filling that little space in the VIP book just for the sake of filling it. I will always smile when I see a risk assessment that’s dirty and used. They are like tanks in that regard. They’re happiest when they get a little dirty.