Group of four poses for photo with two plaques

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn G. Skelly, left, presents Fleet Readiness Center East Compliance and Quality Department Head Amy Morgan, industrial hygienist Pam Jestness and lead safety specialist Brian Pounders with the organizational 2022 Department of Defense Safety and Occupational Health Management System Achievement Award during an Aug. 23 ceremony in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes the depot’s safety management system as the best in the Department of Defense.

FRCE safety program recognized as premier in Defense Department

The safety program at Fleet Readiness Center East (FRCE) has earned recognition for excellence at levels ranging from the state of North Carolina to the Chief of Naval Operations. Now, the depot is being acknowledged by the Department of Defense (DoD) as the best of the best in terms of safety and occupational health.

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Readiness Shawn G. Skelly presented FRCE with the DoD Safety and Occupational Health Management System (SOHMS) Achievement Award for organizations during an Aug. 23 ceremony in Washington, D.C.

In a letter congratulating FRCE for the command’s accomplishment, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Gilbert R. Cisneros Jr. said the award represents a significant accomplishment for the command in implementing a culture of safety.

“FRC East has established a successful, positive safety culture that has connected everyone within the facility around the common goal of a safe and healthy work environment,” Cisneros wrote. “By enhancing commitment to a safety and occupational health management system, FRC East sustains a culture that yields a safe and healthy workplace for generations to come.”

The award, presented annually by the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, honors commands and individuals that have demonstrated exceptional performance in the implementation and sustainment of a safety and occupational health management system that aligns with DoD goals and objectives.

“We established the DoD Annual SOHMS Achievement Awards program in 2016 to recognize the hard work of high-performing DoD organizations such as FRC East, which have gone above and beyond to instill a positive safety culture, enhance accountability and productivity, and create a safer workplace,” said Force Safety and Occupational Health Director Laura Macaluso of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness. “FRC East’s commitment to the principles of effective safety and occupational management systems resulted in both mishap and lost time rate reductions, enhancing the department’s operational readiness and supporting the secretary’s goal of ‘Taking Care of Our People.’”

FRCE Commanding Officer Capt. James M. Belmont said the achievement speaks to the important role safety plays in day-to-day operations at the depot.

“Safety is one of the core tenets of this command and it shows in accomplishments like closing out 2021 with the lowest number of OSHA-recordable mishaps in the depot’s history and receiving recognition from the DoD,” Belmont said. “The Department of Defense Safety and Occupational Health Management System Achievement Award is a huge honor for FRC East. I’m so proud of each member of the team for their efforts to sustain this level of safety in our workplace.”

FRCE Compliance and Quality Department Head Amy Morgan accepted the award on behalf of FRCE, along with industrial hygienist Pam Jestness and lead safety specialist Brian Pounders. Earning recognition from the highest echelons of military leadership was a key indicator that the command is on the right track, she said.

“You can’t get much higher on the top of the heap than saying you are the best within the Department of Defense,” Morgan said. “I swelled with pride for the team here at FRC East, because everyone has a hand in this and everyone has made this happen. It has been a long journey, but we’re not done. We’re just getting started. We’re on that world-class journey to be the safest command that we can be. That’s really exciting.”

Morgan said she believes the command’s superior safety performance and recognition in the SOHMS Achievement Awards reflect the depot’s adoption of the principles of the Voluntary Protection Program (VPP), an initiative of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). VPP recognizes employers and workers in private industry and federal agencies who have implemented effective safety and health management systems and maintain injury and illness rates below national Bureau of Labor Statistics averages for their respective industries. FRCE began participating in the program in 2006 and is one of only 62 DoD sites worldwide to earn the prestigious VPP Star Site designation.

“I believe this award speaks to where VPP takes you,” Morgan explained. “There was a conversation during the award ceremony about how VPP doesn’t make change overnight; VPP changes a culture, and to change a culture takes time. At FRC East, we have been on this journey for a long time.”

That VPP journey is still underway, she noted. Because FRCE is such a large command, it was divided into nine application areas – each consisting of no more than 500 employees – for VPP Star Site consideration. Application Areas Charlie and Golf earned Star Site status in 2019, and are set for recertification in 2023.

“We have a lot of new personnel, and we have been educating them and reminding the workforce of what VPP is and why it’s important,” Morgan said. “The goal is zero injuries, but in the meantime we’re making sure that we’re prepared to recertify our Star Sites and then continue to improve overall safety within the command.

“That takes a cultural change,” she continued. “If your workforce doesn’t intrinsically want to do something, then it’s not going to happen. If you don’t make it easy for them or they don’t understand why it’s important, then they’re not going to do it. But when people understand, they usually want to do the right thing – and in this case, why wouldn’t you want to keep yourself safe so you can enjoy a nice, long, full life with your family? That’s the goal here.”

Morgan said time spent adopting VPP principles has been time well invested, because it helped develop the culture of safety that is now pervasive at FRCE and continues to benefit the command. 

“This has been a decade or more of a concerted team effort. This has been because of everyone being involved, and that’s the only way we succeed,” she said. “This is just how we do our work here: safely. Not the old ways, or how it’s always been done. It’s not a discussion point; we’re going to do our work the right way and follow the process and continually improve. Our goal is to have zero injuries – zero people hurt while they are at work, so they go home whole to their families every night. And we’re going to keep pressing for that.”

The advantages of Improving workforce safety and occupational health also include a significant financial benefit to the command. Data shows that FRCE has documented safety-connected savings of more than $30 million since 2009, Morgan said.

“It’s fortunate that with improved safety, there is also a significant financial tail that comes with this that reduces expense greatly, by millions of dollars,” she explained. “This impacts not only the wholeness of our people, but our financial stability as a command to be able to continue to support the warfighter. That’s tremendous.”

While the Defense Department’s recognition of FRCE’s safety program is gratifying, the results of the improved safety culture are what’s truly important, Morgan added. Those results are readily evident in the depot’s safety statistics.

“There has been a lot of hard work and a lot of tough days, and a lot of wondering if we’re really making a difference,” Morgan said. “But then you look at the data and the numbers, and there’s no denying our injury rates are the lowest they’ve ever been.”

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