Hidden heroes: Safety Office advocates for employees, protects workforce

Herb Nold, USAG Rheinland-Pfalz Installation Safety Office inspector, checks the schematics and labeling on a breaker box in a garrison building recently. 

The job of the U.S. Army Garrison Rheinland-Pfalz Safety Office is to make the work environment safer for garrison employees.

It sounds simple. It’s not.

“We protect the workforce, the Soldiers, the family members, (and) ensure the facilities, events, buildings and anything the garrison owns is safe from hazards,” said Leah Holly, acting Garrison Safety Office director. “We identify hazards, potential hazards and apply mitigations to them.”

The five-member office (four in Kaiserslautern, one in Baumholder) looks at safety mitigations for potential hazards in garrison facilities, unit and Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation events, schools from Sembach to Baumholder and at sites in the Black Sea area.

The inspectors say it’s true, they can be bearers of bad news, but they remind everyone who safety regulations are “written in blood.”

“I learned this from my first supervisor a long time ago,” said Herb Nold, safety inspector for almost 40 years. “For every safety regulation in a book, hundreds had to have been injured or killed for that to become a regulation.”

The safety team says many of the infractions they see are due to complacency.

“I think it comes down to, ‘I’ve been doing this job twenty years, I know it, I know the hazards of it and I know I can do it faster than the regs say’ or ‘I don’t need to wear my personal protection equipment,’” said Todd Lewis, garrison safety inspector. “There’s a reason the procedure is that way. It’s to avoid hazard and injury.”

The inspectors’ jobs changed dramatically in March with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When the pandemic first started, we spent a lot of time making sure the Deployment Processing Center, the unit quarantine barracks and even family housing units set aside for quarantining families were safe,” said Nold. “We had to make sure everyone was following the guidance and not mixing possible positive cases with those who were unaffected. There were hundreds of Soldiers in the DPC at any one time, and it also was the beginning of the summer PCS season.”

In the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. had one set of COVID guidelines and the host nation had a different set of rules — with both being adhered to for safety. The safety team went around the garrison making sure local national employees were taken care of as much of U.S. employees.

When garrison leadership made decisions to slowly start re-opening facilities near the beginning of summer, it brought a different set of challenges.

“When facilities like the fitness centers, Java Cafes, the Education Center and even Child and Youth Services among others, wanted to open up, we were very busy making sure all of the signage, hand cleaning stations and things like that were in place,” Nold said. ”We also looked at work stations being socially distanced within offices and proper barriers were in place to protect employees and customers.”

One aspect stateside safety inspectors don’t deal with is the duality between U.S. laws and host nation laws. Many times the safety laws parallel each other. Once in a while, they don’t.

“The host nation employees are the continuity to the office,” Holly said. “They are the encyclopedias of not only host nation laws, but American regulations.”

The safety inspectors say one of the most difficult parts of their jobs, before the pandemic, was overcoming the stereotype of safety inspectors trying to ruin events.

“People think we’re coming into their office or into their event planning to make their lives harder,” Lewis said. “In reality, we are advocates for the workforce. Our job is to make them safe and push those requests up the chain of command.”

“A lot of times, I’ll ask an office to ‘tell me what is wrong,’” Holly said. “Honest answers will shed light on problem areas and you may be able to move to the beginning of the DPW line for service orders or you may get money to buy safety supplies or ergonomic furniture.”

Whether issues are simple or complex, the inspectors say they want to know about them. Whether it’s needing steel-toed boots, a pad to stand on at a desk or an ergonomic chair for a bad back, they want to hear about it.

“There’s a saying in the safety office that, ‘Safety is expensive,’ because it always costs money,” Lewis said. “What we say is, ‘It’s not expensive, it’s priceless.’ Would you rather pay for an ergonomic chair or back surgery?”

To contact the USAG Rheinland-Pfalz Safety Office, call DSN 541-2300 in Kaiserslautern or 531-2703/2753 in Baumholder.