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October 15, 2009

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Unusual suspects- Battle stations

Scott Fisher is a health and safety officer for the Ministry of Defence during the day and a TA Staff Sergeant in the Royal Military Police in his spare time. He was recently called up by the regular Army to fill a new health and safety post in Afghanistan and he welcomed the opportunity to possibly make a difference. It wasn’t long before he realised the mammoth task he had taken on, however.

The operation in Afghanistan has been running for more than eight years now and while the infrastructure is in place to ensure that service personnel live as comfortably as possible based on operational tempo, it is fair to say that the adoption of good health and safety practice has not been a priority. Health and safety in the Army is taken very seriously — from the top down — and it ensures that servicemen and women are looked after as well as possible. Every commander has the health and safety of their troops at heart but, with bullets flying around their heads, it is not their main priority. And this is where I fit in.

My role is to act as a focal point for health and safety across Afghanistan, but also including Oman, Kuwait and Bahrain. With more than 8000 military personnel from all three armed services, and some 1000 civilian employees and contractors located in more than 25 different places, who are often separated by hundreds of miles of desert with an enemy between them, this is not a job for the faint-hearted. My instructions from headquarters in the UK were to get UK bases up to the standard we would expect at home (where practicable), so there was a lot of work to be done. Oh, and I only had six months in which to do it!

Front-line tactics

The first thing that had to be agreed was the level of compliance we were aiming for. Operating out of well-established locations such as Kabul, Kandahar and Camp Bastion is very different to other sites in which troops live and work, such as abandoned compounds constructed mainly from mud. It was agreed that the main bases should be compliant, and be so as soon as possible. Within days of this being agreed I went to work and began by carrying out audits to get a sense of what was required, and to gather enough information to develop an action plan.

Now, carrying out audits and inspections of the workplace is normally pretty easy and doesn’t involve too much preparation, or equipment. But I soon realised things were a little bit different in Afghanistan. For example, before a recent visit to Kabul I first had to check with the commander on the ground to determine which operations were taking place, and if it was a convenient time to visit. As you can imagine, there are certain times when the last thing the battle groups need is someone asking silly questions and looking for risk assessments. In fact, there have been times when, had I turned up unannounced, my own health and safety would have been at risk!

Then there are the travel arrangements. Most readers will by now be familiar with the Taliban’s weapon of choice — IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) — and the damage they can do. Consequently, if I want to go somewhere, I have to book myself a flight three days beforehand, as road moves are kept to an absolute minimum. I then have to consider my final destination, as this dictates what aircraft I have to book. There are some locations that will accept our C130 and C17 aircraft, while others can only accommodate helicopters, so I normally travel in a Chinook (pictured previous page).

Obviously, the kit I have to take with me is very different from what I am used to at home. There are the usual items, such as a notebook, pen, camera and relevant paperwork, but added to that is the not-so-usual body armour, a loaded rifle with 150 rounds of ammunition, a loaded pistol, and a ballistic helmet (I class this as my extreme PPE!)

Another side to my work is assisting with the VIP visits to ensure that the visitors are safe while in Kandahar, and that they receive the relevant safety briefs and the correct PPE. The airbase comes under regular rocket attack, so we have to ensure that people have body armour and helmets to hand at all times. A visitor I recently looked after was actually a previous employer of mine, at Lewisham Council in London. The borough’s mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, as an employer, now has a greater understanding of the role reservists play and how we help by bringing specialist skills out with us that are not normally available.


We all live in a world full of danger — and none more so than the people in Afghanistan — but things happen here that never would in the UK. People seem to take greater risks and cut corners to get jobs done, without considering the consequences. The important thing out here is to get the job done as quickly as possible, by whatever means, and safety is often forgotten.

As the focal point for health and safety, I see all the accident reports and it is a sad fact that a lot of people suffer injuries — some serious — due to negligence on their own part. If a little more thought went into the process a lot of these incidents could have been prevented. If my being here helps prevent only one accident then I have at least achieved something. Health and safety has now been embraced here and things are starting to happen but, as in most situations, it will take education, time and investment to bed in.

Scott Fisher is an MoD health and safety officer.

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