Tom Rozman: Strategic Safety Program

Building a Safety Program and Hazardous Materials Communication Program in a State Park Division

Article by Tom Rozman

A state park division’s recently hired training officer/coordinator was summoned to his supervisor’s office, subject of the request unknown.  He had been onboard with the division for not quite two weeks.  The training oversight function was comprehensive, encompassing a 30 park unit and headquarters operation spread over a huge geography. The most distant unit was some 500 miles away in the mountains as the crow flies, much longer by ground transportation.  The position oversaw all armed police training for some 67 officers, certification training for waste water operations, and other necessary certifications, business training for retail operations in the parks, food service training for non-concession restaurants, life guard training programs, interpretation programs in support of a colleague on staff, train-the-trainer programs as necessary, interface with supporting training establishments, organization and contract work for training conferences to include management, and significantly and unknown on hire, the occupational safety and health program.  The supervisor’s summons would be a belated introduction to the latter responsibility.

The new training officer, though the training function was thinly resourced by the division, was well prepared and experienced in the training policy and program development and execution and assessment field having planned and delivered related training for small to medium organizations, orchestrated training support for large organizations and developed programs, policies and regulations nationwide for the Army.  As well, he had served several times as unit safety officer for several organizations of 159-190 employees.

The parks division was an organization of some 200 employees year round.  The individual park staffs were essentially cadres of professional staff that expanded by as much as 100% with hourly seasonal and concession employees, swelling the agency to some 800 employees during the three months of the summer season.

The individual parks were semi-autonomous units that were organized at three different levels with a park manager to principle park manager depending on size, the larger parks having one or more assistant park managers.   All parks had one to as many as 5 chief park rangers and one to four park rangers.  The larger parks had a salaried administrative technician or manager (smaller parks an hourly person), and select parks had a business manager or interpretive program manager.  These were uniformed staff and 70% of these employees were double hatted as governor commissioned armed, at the time, Conservators of the Peace with law enforcement powers for applicable penal, traffic and environmental law in the park jurisdiction (these officers were later upgraded to Conservation Officers with statewide powers).

The parks were comprehensive establishments with a headquarters, restaurant, store, water recreation liveries of canoes, kayaks and paddle boats, swimming pools or beach facilities, camp ground with all necessary hook-ups, conference centers, cabin complexes, museums, historical property, boat launch facilities and docking facilities on the river and lake parks and roads and trails for hiking and biking.  Park staff were capable of organizing and executing ongoing maintenance and small to substantial maintenance reserve and capital projects.

One park region of the three then organized encompassed over 39,000 acres.  The largest park had 8,000 acres.  The infrastructure with some 10 earth dams across the park system needing maintenance, 900+ miles of roads and trails, a fleet of operational vehicles ranging to 200, along with all manner of maintenance and project equipment required a full multi-bay shop, vehicle park and refueling station capability on almost every park.

The training function necessary to keep an organization of the above magnitude and operational extent viable was immense in scope.  Yet, the culture of the division was to operate on the most stringent fiscal schedule possible.  Fiscal constraint was an understatement.  That said, the fiscal resource tended to be tightly but well managed and the park system was a jewel—very much made so by the dedication and commitment of the field staff through their hard work and resourcefulness.  Field staff  were committed to providing access by their fellow state residents and guests of the state to the best park system in the world.  And they made this a reality.

The new training officer reported to his supervisor’s office.  The supervisor sheepishly pushed a memorandum across his desk to the new training officer.  He said that he should have made the new hire aware of the situation the memo indicated much sooner.  The training officer read the memo.

In effect, the memo dated 1991 and signed by the division director acknowledged that the division was not CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) 1926 Hazardous Materials Communication Standard (HAZCOM) compliant, compliance to have been achieved in 1987.  The memo referred to previous division efforts to achieve this vital compliance that had failed, stating a need to achieve compliance as soon as possible.  In a word, the division was entirely non-compliant and well beyond the window of required compliance.  In effect, if a park employee became a fatality and the division’s non-compliance to put their HAZCOM Program in place was proximate to the fatality, the fatality investigation that would duly be initiated would likely make a finding of at least one Willful violation and under the circumstances a possible Criminal Willful violation.

As well, because the director had knowledge and had failed to act and establish the program and necessary training, a potential willful finding could be personally problematic.  The Director in such case would not have public service immunity protection from personal liability.  A willful finding essentially indicates gross negligence by the director and therefore places the director at personal risk of a civil court proceeding where substantial financial penalties could be issued by the court.  Even if a defending attorney could make an effective case to avoid such decision, the court action could well prove ruinous to the director in legal fees.

As the new training officer read the memo the image of the proverbial “t – – – in his mess kit” formed in his mind and given preceding experience on many investigations in the Army, the risk scenario above went through his mind.  After reading the memo, it was clear that much of the difficulty in getting the program established and operating was due to cultural inhibitors within the organization and an insular focus that failed to engage an open team, approach and used every recourse available to best effect.  And there was no time—the suspense to be compliant was several years ago.  An immediate plan formed in the mind of the new training officer.

After reading the memo, the training officer stated the obvious assessment to his supervisor—”we need a program immediately with following training across the state.”  I recommend we engage a sister agency similar in extended organization and requirement that put a program in place and appeal to that agency’s good offices to let parks piggy back off of their program, then suggesting two agencies, one being the State Department of Transportation.  As well, the training officer stated that determining what if any support might be available from the state’s Labor Department would be pursued.  The supervisor’s immediate reaction was that this course of action could not be followed as the gross out of compliance status of the agency would become known and worse might happen with sanctions for staff who had failed in their mission.

The training officer thought a bit.  He remembered back to an Army policy update he had sat in on as a director at a major Army command several months prior.  One item had gotten his attention.

According to the update on a major Army school, testing and troop installation, a civilian employee had become a fatality due to a failure by the installation commander to achieve compliance with the HAZCOM Standard. He had not developed his installation’s program nor trained his installation’s employees.  While military staff for such matters would come under the military system for investigation and necessary legal action, civilian employees came under the National Occupatinal Safety and Health law and federal civilian jurisdiction for investigation.  In this case a finding of willful apparently was made against the installation and a following civil action against the commander followed that assessed a monetary determination in seven figures.

The training officer realized that his new supervisor needed to be quickly re-calibrated in his sense of priorities—he respectfully related the above story for perspective.  He added that the effort could be made “clandestinely” to avoid unwanted results. The supervisor got the message, conferred immediately with the director obtaining agreement to proceed.  Unplanned, but a development that added to the supervisor’s new found suppor was an occupational safety and health inspection on a distant park that issued a citation.  The new training officer used this horse to ride as well to cement leader support lest some members of the team later chose to stymie progress.

In the event thanks to the good offices and generosity of the transportation department’s safety director, a true professional and good colleague, the parks division stood up its HAZCOM program with all necessary plans documents and training within a month and a week.  The transportation department’s state wide training system that aligned well with the parks division’s dispersed situation, along with its already having developed a generic and proprietary safety data sheet archive and access system for all dispersed sites, allowed this rapid spin up for parks.  As well, the parks division and its parent agency and the other agency divisions built their safety program to include establishment of the agency safety committee, a published occupational safety and health plan and the appointment by memo of assigned safety officers for each staffed site.

But there were lingering cultural issues that would need further attention in the division’s leader focus.  Several weeks after the division’s successful HAZCOM Plan was established, the still new training officer was chit chatting with a colleague at end of day.  The conversation was fairly innocuous small talk until the colleague began a comment as follows.

“You embarrassed many people here.  Several people here had been working hard on the HAZCOM problem and you fixed it in just over a month.  You should not embarrass or show up your colleagues this way.”

The message was clear—the new person was being disciplined to not show up the group.

The response was automatic.  “X, we had employees in harms way unto possible death and we had failed to do our job to train and protect them.  That is wrong.  It is our duty to do what is right.  If I am presented with a similar situation in future, I will act in the same way.  In future, please do not entertain such discussion with me—I find it offensive.”

Obviously a success in a difficult and time sensitive situation was achieved by a re-calibration of leadership’s priorities and smart use of all resources, even some out of the box to expedite a solution.  Protecting one’s “sandbox” for the wrong reasons and being insular prevents timely solutions that are synergistic.  Leaders have to be open to effective solutions even if the solutions develop from an unexpected quarter.  And leaders  must have a bedrock value system that always errs to the right thing being done. In this case, among other factors, a leader culture was contributing to an ineffectual ability to get a critical task done, a task with life threatening potential if not accomplished.

This was an outstanding organization, but all organizations have their areas that need leader attention and “close” mentoring.  Lives may depend upon the leader doing the right thing, even if it is the harder right thing to do.

Previous articles by Tom Rozman:

The Open Air Ordnance Museum — Temporarily Cleaning It Up

Riot Control Duty—Reinforcing Company C

Teamwork top to bottom

Confronting a “perfect storm” & beating it

American & German cooperation with a Canadian connection

A Battalion Commander’s Determination

The AWOL M16

Rebuilding a University ROTC Cadet Corps and more

Supporting a National Guard Mechanized Infantry Company & more

Reorganizing a Mechanized Infantry Company

No Time for Platoon ARTEPS in a Mechanized Battalion

The Reward for Doing Well

Leadership Approaches That Get the Job Done

Reconstituting an Overseas Platoon on a Mission of High Sensitivity