Safety in Aerospace Defense
By Scott Ellis
Director, Environmental Health and Safety and Industrial Hygiene
2020 has been a learning experience for us all. The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a new category of challenges the U.S. Environmental, Health, and Safety (EHS) industry has never faced before. I find the best way to respond when in uncharted territory is to consult your experts, be open to innovative solutions, and always refer to the regulations.
Each industry has its own set of challenges, but safety is safety. The aerospace defense industry has not halted operations during COVID-19 and fortunately, there haven’t been any furloughs or layoffs at my company, Vertex Aerospace LLC. The majority of our employees are manufacturers, aircraft mechanics, or technicians of some kind, so we can’t send them home to telework.
“Establishing the purpose for the ERT, developing common objectives, and explaining to our workforce how we could support them were critical to our success.”
Also, as part of the critical infrastructure, we are required to continue normal operations in support of our military customers. Due to these requirements and the nature of the aerospace defense industry, we have faced several challenges in maintaining the safety and risk levels of our workforce.
Emergency Response Teams
An emerging trend I’ve noticed across multiple industries is that EHS departments are taking the lead on or being heavily involved with COVID-19 Emergency Response Teams (ERT). In line with this trend, I was designated as the EHS representative on my company’s ERT, which was stood up at the onset of the pandemic. The team was comprised of EHS, security, human resources, and corporate communications subject matter experts to best understand how the team’s decisions would affect our workforce and operations.
At first, responding to situations across our 100 plus sites was like being a fireman going from one emergency to the next. Establishing the purpose for the ERT, developing common objectives, and explaining to our workforce how we could support them was critical to our success. The next challenge was to ensure our developed safety protocols made sense to everyone in the company. This required drafting communications and policies at a level anyone could understand and follow with minimal effort. Once that occurred, everyone knew their place and marched to the same beat.
Making the Data Work
Vertex has over 100 sites around the world, so examining COVID-19 data and making protocol decisions for each state and county, or each country and province, was at first a daunting task. Our protocols also had to line up with our customers’ guidance since most of our programs are located on military installations.
Combing through statistics of COVID-19 cases and the decline or increase in each area combined with our local customers’ guidance required extreme attention to detail and was accomplished through painstakingly long work hours and weekends. As more data sources emerged and information became easier to obtain, making recommendations for protective measures became less and less cumbersome.
Supply Chain Challenges
In the fields of manufacturing and maintenance, employees often work in teams or in close quarters, like in a cock pit or paint shop where it’s hard to social distance. It was not only important that we implement safety requirements based on the data, but also that we use the right type of equipment to safely continue operations in each environment.
Accomplishing this via Supply Chain was a new landscape for EHS to tackle. Obtaining the necessary inventory for PPE supplies was a challenge from the beginning since conventional sources had been depleted due to prioritization for the government. It was through sheer innovation that we were able to make it work with a mixture of normal and unconventional suppliers.
When we ran out of hand sanitizer, we purchased barrels of the antibacterial agent made by a local alcohol distillery. When there was a shortage of masks, our parachute riggers fabricated them for Vertex employees and their family members.
Innovation is key when facing uncharted territory, but it’s also important to find cost effective solutions. There has recently been a surge in new thermal imaging technology systems that check temperatures at building entrances. Initially, a typical setup was $30,000 for one system. We strategically sourced this technology and obtained a system that provides the same level of accuracy for about $2000 per unit.
Takeaways & Lessons Learned
When faced with a challenging situation, the best thing to do is treat it as a learning experience. Review your actions with your staff and make the process a teaching/learning endeavor vice an adversarial event. Confront it head-on as if it were an audit – go through the process of preparing the objective evidence based on the situation, present the information for each location, and then work the corrective actions.
During an unprecedented event, there will be mistakes, but it’s what you learn from those errors that will improve the performance of your team and set them up for success in future situations. Dealing with COVID-19 in the aerospace defense industry has been the best EHS education anyone could ask for in a career.