I have often reflected on my time in the Navy and the many dangerous scenarios I have witnessed—and whether the risk is worth the reward. For example, I remember when a sailor from the fuels department tripped and fell through a hatch—dropping a jerry fuel can onto another sailor’s head. The first sailor fractured his femur while the second needed multiple stitches on her forehead. Though there will always be some degree of risk involved in naval operations, the Navy needs to implement changes to safeguard its most important assets—sailors—especially now, in the face of strong recruiting headwinds.1
The Safety Question
Every year, public companies are subjected to independent audits to ensure their financial statements accurately reflect what they are worth and are doing. An independent auditor reviews systems such as a company’s internal controls to mitigate risks—embezzlement, for example. Internal controls are the procedures and activities that shield organizations from financial, operational, and strategic risk.2 At the end of the audit, the auditor provides a report to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which investors then use to determine if they wish to invest in the company. The Navy must follow suit and independently audit its current internal safety controls—not to satisfy investors, but to ensure the welfare of sailors.
Serving on an amphibious assault ship—particularly as part of the deck department—allowed me to be a part of various evolutions and tasks that have been safety concerns or even resulted in injury. I boasted about being a “deck ape” because I had a laborious and physical job that other sailors shied away from. However, this job also gave me an excellent foundation to understand safety from the ship’s heart: the deckplates. Whether completing a replenishment at sea or a mooring evolution, safety dictates the rules and procedures. The specifics sometimes differ but will always be briefed before every evolution. The petty officer in charge of the safety brief reads phrases such as “Do not step over the lines,” “Do not step over a bit,” and “Hand over hand.” However, at least one safety violation undoubtedly occurs during every evolution.
Everyone’s Job, Nobody’s Job
Despite the Navy’s safety brief and commitment to procedural compliance, sailors continue to get injured. Why is that? A common phrase is “safety is everyone’s job.” Unfortunately, safety also is nobody’s job. In other words, the Navy has not delegated the safety role to specific deckplate sailors. This is a missed opportunity to promote a larger culture of safety at the core of the Navy’s workforce. Yes, there are safety officers, but the current ratio of safety officers to sailors is insufficient. The safety officer roves around the different spaces of the ship focusing on the bigger picture. He or she also has many other responsibilities, such as safety budgeting, mishap log keeping, and safety training.3 These other responsibilities make it difficult for a safety officer to focus attention on a department’s particular tasks.
Instead, this role should be delegated daily to junior sailors on the deckplates. This would create awareness for safety procedures and practices while providing accountability and a greater sense of responsibility for junior sailors. Time in service and leadership experience lead to wisdom and better overall knowledge of safety. Junior personnel tend to need more safety awareness. Assigning a junior sailor to oversee safety controls would immediately create a more safety-conscious environment within the departments and empower sailors by giving them more responsibility.
Furthermore, making new safety sailors responsible for detecting risks and correcting problems would pay dividends in the long run by educating sailors on different safety measures and providing them direct, hands-on experience.
Each department should designate a safety sailor and provide him or her with a safety audit checklist. This checklist would be a guide for the safety assessment in accordance with the Navy Occupational Safety and Health program. Most important, the role would allow junior sailors to exercise critical thinking regarding safety.
Ideally, the checklist would be a foundation of the daily safety audit. Safety assessments should be the focus of the safety sailor role. For example, ensuring proper personal protective equipment is being used, clearing pathways of trip hazards, and maintaining clear labeling of secured areas should all be delegated to the safety sailor. After completing the task, the junior sailor should analyze the safety audit with his or her leaders. This analysis should cover the preventive, detective, and corrective actions taken.
Implementing such a role in the Navy’s deckplate-level operations would reduce daily safety risks. At the same time, it would empower young sailors by giving them more responsibility and educating them on the importance of safety. The Navy would accomplish its mission more efficiently while safeguarding its most important asset—sailors.
1. David W. Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Addressing the U.S. Military Recruiting Crisis,” War on the Rocks, 10 March 2023.
2. “Internal Controls: The Definitive Guide for Risk and Compliance Procedures,” RiskOptics, 6 April 2022.
3. “Safety Officer Duties and Responsibilities,” MyNavyHR.