Diminishing the 'human factor' one Airman at a time

  • Published
  • By Maj. Gabe Johnson
  • 162nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Fifty-nine maintainers representing a spectrum of ranks and weapon system specialties recently visited the 162nd Fighter Wing here to become certified MRM instructors enabling them to spread the word and change the service's safety culture - one Airman at a time.

The concerted efforts of Air Force safety officials and aircraft maintainers to remove the human element from preventable mishaps are deeply rooted in a humanitarian ethos - the idea that every Airman deserves to go home safe at night.

Maintenance Resource Management is the safety movement sweeping across the Total Force picking up disciples along the way.

The program, which is derived from the established cockpit resource management concept used by aircrews, abolishes the authoritarian approach to safety and empowers even the most junior Airman to speak up about possible risks, safety officials said.

Under MRM, all tasks are evaluated by a team of maintainers who are taught to rely on planning, decision making, communication, mutual support, task management and lessons learned.

Following a study of aviation mishaps between 1992 and 2002, Air Force officials determined that about 18 percent of aircraft mishaps were attributable to human maintenance errors. The study cited such mistakes as failure to follow published aircraft manuals, lack of assertive communication among maintenance technicians, and improper assembly practices.

In 2005, Air National Guard Aviation Safety Division officials made the MRM program available to the Air Guard's 88 flying wings. In 2006, Defense Department officials recognized the value of the program by adopting a variant of ANG MRM for training throughout the Air Force and is now widely used with substantial results.

Col. Doug Slocum, the Air National Guard director of safety and the author of the MRM curriculum, said that over time many of the mechanical traps in aviation were engineered out of the equation, yet mishaps still occur because of the human factor.

"In the human being aspect of getting work done, how do we work better together?" the F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot said. "We have to move to a level of excellence that has not been thought of before. We can be proud of our heritage, but from a safety stand point we can't look back in time and say that's where we'd ever want to go again. Instead, we want to look at where we are now and, more importantly, where will we be in 20 years. What will be our acceptable safety behavior then?"

Lt. Col. Dave LaTour, the chief of safety for the 150th Special Operations Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, N.J., now trains other MRM instructors.

"People are so afraid of failure that they rush toward success and inadvertently introduce failure," he said. "Rushing is all thrust with no vector. Instead of being in a hurry we want to be quick because quick is intentional and precise about where you are going.

"Assumptions are also a challenge we have to overcome," he added. "We assume that because we are intelligent and proficient at our job that we don't need someone to check our work, and we assume that rank either inhibits or empowers us when the reality is that we are equals when it comes to keeping each other safe."

Lt. Col. Dom Sarnataro, a C-130 pilot and chief of safety for the 189th Airlift Wing at Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., is a newly minted instructor. He said MRM incorporates many of the safety practices he uses in the cockpit.

"MRM encourages members to read about safety mishaps from around the service," he said. "I am safest at my job after I hear a safety brief about a pilot who got hurt. You naturally think, 'That could happen to me.'"

Lessons learned factor into an overall MRM approach that helps maintainers assess risk.

"Take an engine change for example," Sarnataro said, "there's lighting within five miles, we have a younger guy on the job and it's windy. All of these factors can add up to an unacceptable risk to get the job done. All it takes is one individual to speak up."

And more teamwork for every task creates more opportunity to speak up.

"One Airman might be a 90 percent kind of worker," he said, "meaning that nine out of 10 times his work is error free. But if he works alongside another 90 percent kind of worker he'll get the benefit of another perspective and together they've cut their possibility of error from one in 10 to one in 100. If you have a 90 percent kind of supervisor check the team's work, suddenly you have an overall error rate that's all the way down to one in 1,000."

Slocum said the future of Air Force maintenance safety could become automated to insulate people from preventable errors. He proposes a system of checks and balances that ensures real-time compliance with safety measures; a system that automatically verifies all steps involved in a certain task including the qualification of the maintainer and the supervisor's inspection of the work.

"Safety is all about family, so I'll call it a passion," Slocum said. "At the end of every course I show a picture of my daughter Keira. Every day after work, each one of us deserves to go home safe to our family, and that's our main objective in safety."