WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- When Maj. Shawnee Williams arrived at the Human Systems Integration Directorate, part of the Air Force Research Laboratory’s 711th Human Performance Wing here, she found herself in unfamiliar territory and facing an operationally misunderstood program. So she looked at the programmatics of her division through a lens she knew: safety. She asked her leadership to trust her, and the result is a reinvigorated laboratory -- not to mention one very big award.
After earning a degree in criminal justice, Williams entered the Air Force as a logistics readiness officer and later decided to cross train. She finished her master’s degree in human factors and ergonomics and became an aerospace and operational physiologist. Williams conducted aircrew hypoxia training for three years and then received the first role as a physiologist serving as a flight safety officer, followed by an Air Force Safety Center fellowship in 2009, where she took part in several Air Force safety investigations and worked on the Air Force Safety Automated System. Her career has been safety-oriented ever since.
After her time at the Safety Center, Williams again served as a flight safety officer and stood up the first simulator-based Reduced Oxygen Breathing Device training for CV-22, HH-60, UH-1 and C-130 aircrew. During this time, she also received her doctorate in psychology. Then Williams moved to Lakenheath.
“I was at the tip of the spear with F-15C hypoxia issues, On-Board Oxygen Generating Systems issues, you name it,” she said. “I was the only physiologist for both Lakenheath and Mildenhall. But, because I had safety experience, I was also matrixed to the safety office conducting safety investigations.”
Later, when Williams received her physiology board certification from the Aerospace Medical Association, she was approached by then-Col. Kathryn Hughes, who was at that time the director of the Human Systems Integration Directorate. Shortly thereafter, Williams was reassigned to the 711 HPW.
Williams arrived at the HSI Directorate in July 2016 and found her footing as the deputy division chief of the Implementation Division.
“As soon as I got there, I said, ‘This is safety through and through,’” she said. “My recommendation was to change the focus on the safety HSI domain from a singular technical definition to one defined by the whole concept of safety. After briefing leadership on the safety functions and the operational links with HSI, the Human Systems Implementation Division began to codify their processes in a different way. Together we broadened the view of safety to not only include weapon systems development but also the Air Force safety investigation lens.”
It turned out that Williams’ safety lens was a good one: her division was awarded the Air Force Materiel Command 2017 Air Force Chief of Safety Special Achievement Award.
Even with her leadership on board, Williams had to start from scratch. At the time of her arrival, the division’s anthropometry lab was an undefined space that was manned by a lieutenant and a civilian with no prior experience. She worked to get equipment accounts and refine what equipment they needed. She worked with leadership to hire more people, created a training plan and defined how to grow an anthropometry professional. Then she realized it was more than just anthropometry, because the lab was also going to begin performing task analysis, requirements verification, product assessment and more for the Air Force, Army and Navy.
With a robust staff in place and a refined focus on where they wanted to take HSI, Williams and the team re-examined their projects, such as exoskeleton evaluation.
Williams and the team have started to ask, “When we look at the exoskeleton, for example, how do we want to do task analysis for that? How do we want to look at mishap prevention from an occupational hazard standpoint? Because that’s really what we want exoskeletons to do -- alleviate the musculoskeletal burden that people are facing in the depots. Let us try it, let us give you the portfolio on these different exoskeletons, and see if it’s right for your mission.
“I think that’s a huge piece with preventive safety,” Williams added. “And it resonates outside of the Air Force, as well. We briefed NASA on the exoskeleton, for example, and they were interested not just in how it might help astronauts lift things but also on how it might provide resistance training so they don’t experience so much atrophy while in space. We don’t get involved in the research and development, of course, but the applications from a safety standpoint are tremendous.”
Next up for Williams and her team is an analysis of the U-28 aircraft, which she describes as the capstone for this revitalization effort.
“We got the people, we got the tools, we got the training plan in place,” Williams said. “Now we get to go do the tasks.”
The team will assess the aircraft for the aircrew, starting with a pre-assessment survey asking where the crew experiences pain and what their issues with the aircraft are, for example. The aircraft will actually be on-site, as well, so the team will scan it with handheld 3-D scanners and use the modeling software they purchased.
“Everything is coming together, and we get to show why we did what we did,” Williams said. “I asked people to trust me and said, ‘If you let me do this, I will run with it. I will take responsibility, good or bad.’ And we’ve ended up here. Our program is a truly valued asset. I’m really excited about what we’ve been able to achieve in such a short amount of time.”