“Drive safe,” “Do it safely,” “Be careful,” and myriad other admonishments come from the mouths of Navy leaders every day. Is our sage wisdom and timely application of vague generalities saving the day and preventing sailors from driving recklessly, doing things in a hazardous fashion, or being risky? Or are Navy leaders indoctrinated into a system in which they know they must voice the idea of safety and the importance of safe operations, but are not sure what that looks like and so administer a scripted dose of safety lip service to cover the bases?
There appears to be a lot of talk about safety without much thought behind it. For example, at squadron indoctrination sessions, incoming sailors are asked which was more important, safety or the squadron’s mission. Without fail, nearly 100 percent of sailors from E3 to E9 said safety was more important. To be fair it is a bit of a trick question (by posing a false dichotomy) but it also gets to the root of the issue. Sailors are pledging allegiance to a nebulous concept without understanding and respecting what safety is, when and how it interacts with other organizational values and the Navy’s mission, or how to implement it and achieve results.
The Navy exists to consistently and honorably accomplish its mission: to maintain, train and equip combat-ready naval forces capable of winning wars, deterring aggression and maintaining freedom of the seas. The mission may change over time as the world and threats change, and our force structure with it, but mission accomplishment is why we exist. In this light, the organizational values Navy leaders espouse, such as safety and efficiency, are contingent values. They are not separate missions that should exist in the service regardless of whether or not they function as force multipliers or divisors. For example, efficiency is embraced because its implementation conserves resources which allows the organization to better diversify investments, prioritize tasks, and adapt to changing circumstances. The results efficiency delivers are believed to help enable mission accomplishment; thus, efficiency is valued contingent on it delivering those results.
Safety should be viewed in the same light. Safety is not the mission nor is it as important as the mission. Rather, when appropriately employed safety improves the organization’s ability to succeed at its mission in a consistent and repeatable manner.
This is not a diminution of safety; it is a fervent cry for the Navy to recognize the role and value that safety brings to the force when properly understood and employed as a force multiplier. With a little critical thought, we can better grasp what safety is and how it is linked to mission accomplishment. With this newfound respect for the merit of safety as a contingent organizational value we can end the superficial treatment that undermines its usefulness and positive effects and more thoroughly embrace its methodology.
Combat losses aside, prior wars (especially World War II) have proven that modern high-tech militaries can win wars without embracing safety if they are willing to accept the costs—high rates of personnel and equipment lost in mistakes, errors, oversights, and accidents. If the force structure can absorb these losses, then safety may not be recognized as a value. As an example, accident rates in naval aviation were high during World War II. Shirtless sailors often were burnt, cut, or crushed on the flight deck. Aircraft and their operators perished frequently because of rushed and insufficient training and maintenance malpractice. And yet, during this time, the flow of war materiél and sailors outpaced losses and the Navy absorbed the cost without embracing safety.
This no longer is the case. With the shift to a volunteer military and the rapid pace of technological expansion, the Navy has adapted its force structure. The service is smaller and leaner across rates and invests more time and resources in each sailor. The equipment and weapons employed are orders of magnitude more complex and deadly, but also vastly more expensive and available in reduced numbers. Gone are the days of planes rolling out of the factory every ten minutes. Thus, on the aggregate, each person and plane today contributes more to the Navy’s mission accomplishment than their predecessors. The Navy is no longer capable of absorbing the high error rates of previous decades and in order to consistently achieve mission success has embraced the value of safety. Safety, in this light, is a mind-set that seeks to accumulate knowledge, techniques, and practices that, when implemented, will conserve the Navy’s people and assets. This is safety as a force multiplier and mission enabler.
Safety tools help people take proactive steps to ensure the unit’s people and equipment are sustained so mission success can be achieved. The most familiar safety methodology is the mishap investigation report. Such reports look back on past events to identify root causes to avoid repeating errors. Two less familiar tools of safety are risk management measures and standardization practices. Risk management is preventative. It is forward looking and instructs sailors in identifying potentialities, assessing their consequences, and developing strategies to avoid or reduce the negative outcomes. While the formal process and associated charts can be valuable, risk management practices are most valuable “on the fly” as part of a unit’s daily routine. Employed in these situations, it should be simplified to three questions:
- What is different today?
- How can this hurt me or others and/or damage our equipment?
- What can be done about it?
Finally, standardization provides for the establishment of norms and best practices, which allow individuals and organizations to realize higher levels of predictability, knowledge transferability, and process/conduct dependability. The document that comes to most minds is Naval Air Training and Operational Procedures Standardization (NATOPS). However, the Naval Aviation Maintenance Program (NAMP) is also a safety document. A unit’s standard operating procedures are another safety document. The contribution to safety from standardization should not be overlooked.
Today’s Navy is composed of men and women who are people of action. They want to ensure the nation’s enemies remain abroad and to provide the warm blanket of security that enables national prosperity. They signed up to accomplish the mission. When only lip service is given to safety, the methodologies employed to accomplish it are misunderstood and viewed as a hindrance to mission success. But if Navy leaders stop positing safety as a mission opposed to combat effectiveness, and train to recognize it as an organizational value linked and employed to achieve repeatable mission successes, it will be embraced by those who serve. People of all ranks will understand and respect the value safety adds, employ its methods more appropriately, and thereby establish a true culture of safety.