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November 29, 2006

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Flying high – free from harm

IOSH immediate past president Neil Budworth found out about the ‘high-life’, writes Paul Marston, and how young people are kept safe at an RAF base.

Neil paid a visit to RAF Wittering in Cambridgeshire to find out how young airmen and airwomen are kept safe in a working environment that includes refuelling and flying Harrier jets, bomb disposal, dog handling and weapons training — as well as everyday hazards such as moving vehicles and the construction of new living accommodation blocks.

All trainees have to go through induction and training for the specific tasks they have to do. RAF Wittering has to integrate health and safety into everything they do, because otherwise it could have devastating consequences.

High standards of operating procedures are applied. For instance, if any tool went missing from a toolbox in a workshop, the whole of the workshop would be searched until the missing item was found. Such an item could bring down a Harrier jet, possibly resulting in multiple fatalities and the loss of £30 million worth of aircraft.

Wing Commander Clive Montellier, the officer commanding Wittering’s Support Wing said: “Health and safety is something that should always be there, but it’s also one of those things that you can never say ‘we’ve cracked it’. In our role, we have to do things that are not inherently safe, not only in flying, but also in carrying live weapons, or training to use our respirators. Our aim is to train and supervise all our personnel to do dangerous things in a safe manner.

“That’s why health and safety for us is not just the job of a health and safety adviser — it’s something everyone has to understand and practice from our youngest trainee, to the most senior officer.”

Keeping a close eye

Supervision is also important, and the military environment ensures that non-commissioned officers (NCOs) are on hand to supervise recently trained personnel. Take bomb disposal, for instance, where each unit consists of two junior officers and one senior bomb disposal officer.

“Before anyone is allowed to be employed on bomb disposal,” said Warrant Officer Wright, “They have to have seven weeks initial training and assessment at each stage, and an additional three weeks on top of that. When they are inexperienced they are not placed in a position where they have to make a decision, instead they are there to assist only.

“In such a line of work, risk has to be managed, but the only way we can avoid accidents is through competency, training and supervision — you have to know how far you can go and you have to know when you are getting out of your depth and need someone else’s help.”

Youthful solutions

But, as Wing Commander Montellier pointed out, all personnel are encouraged to ask ‘why?’ before doing something as part of a continuous improvement process. This sometimes means the youngest personnel can be the greatest assets, as their “fresh eyes” come up with imaginative solutions to issues that they encounter in their work.

“One quite junior airman came up with a way not only to do away with an awkward team lifting task in the Harrier aircraft engine workshop, but also to reduce the risk of damaging the engine component itself. They designed and manufactured a trolley with a platform that would allow a single person to slide the component on to the trolley at the correct height and transport it to the workbench, adjust the height and slide it on to the bench. This didn’t just reduce the safety risk from manual handling, but also made the whole process faster and more efficient.”

And it’s examples like this that show the importance of listening to your young staff and getting them to speak up about any safety concerns they have. Sometimes, they can come up with imaginative solutions that can save you time and money.

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