USAFSAM Keeps Warfighters Well, Safe, and Productive

  • Published
  • By Jay Marquart
  • 711 Human Performance Wing
For those who enjoy identifying and solving problems before they impact people, the Occupational & Environmental Health Department at Brooks City-Base, Texas, is the place to be.

One of six departments in the United States Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine, 711th Human Performance Wing, the OE Department consists of more than 200 engineers, scientists and other professionals, all dedicated to one goal: keeping the warfighter well, safe, and productive.

The OE Department supplies customers throughout the Air Force with proactive occupational and environmental health surveillance capabilities built around three competencies: education and training, consultation, and laboratory analytical services. These capabilities make the OE Department the front line for injury and illness prevention, helping the Air Force maximize workforce availability, that is, ensure its personnel can perform their duties efficiently in a healthy, safe workplace.

The unit has been effective in this role. Colonel Richard Ashworth, OE Department Chair, noted that, historically during wartime, more military personnel have been removed from duty through disease and non-battle injuries than any other cause. Thanks to the OE Department and similar organizations in other DoD branches, this situation has changed dramatically.

"Disease and non-battle injury rates are at their lowest level ever," said Ashworth. "Prevention programs have played a huge part in this outcome."

The OE Department consists of two divisions: the Force Development Division, or OED, and the Occupational & Environmental Health Division, or OEH. Serving over 1,600 resident and distance-learning students annually, OED is the first stop for personnel entering the field of Air Force occupational and environmental health. Officers undergo a rigorous sixteen-week program in bioenvironmental engineering, which includes training across the chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and physical hazard spectrum. Enlisted airmen complete an equally tough twelve-week program in applied science to become bioenvironmental engineering technicians.

The training is demanding. But as much as OED expects of students, it requires even more of itself. To ensure courses reflect the latest corporate requirements, OED constantly reviews new technology (for example, updated field portable gas chromatographs and radiation detection equipment) and conducts Utilization and Training Workshops that first share with field personnel what the schoolhouse is teaching then ask: "What do we need to modify?" Exploring new ways to serve distance-learning students more efficiently is also a priority.

According to Major Robert Eninger, Chief of the Force Development Division, "The customers dictate what we teach, and our challenge is that things do change all the time." Yet he added the importance of OED's mission and the pleasure of "watching young people come into the Air Force, grow as individuals, and become better airmen, citizens, and family members" makes the effort worthwhile.

OEH, with its three branches, Radiation Health (OEHH), Risk Analysis (OEHR), and Technical Services (OEHT) comprises the consultative and analytical services of the OE Department. Annually overseeing more than 75,000 chemical and radiological analyses, OEH also currently helps the OE Department direct 148 major occupational and environmental health projects worldwide. Additionally, the division fields a 24/7, 365 telephone hotline that provides immediate environment, safety, and occupational health support.

A highly visible unit within OE is the Air Force Radiation Assessment Team, or AFRAT, an elite emergency force that can respond to radiological or nuclear incidents literally anywhere within hours. AFRAT's primary mission is force protection of DoD personnel responding to a radiological emergency, but during a national incident, it also assists the commander with expert advice on how DoD forces can best support other state and Federal agencies. AFRAT monitors and assesses the radiation hazards and recommends actions to protect the health of military personnel and the public.

Maintaining this capability requires continual effort. "The training never ends," said Major Steve Dewey, Chief of OEHH and long-time AFRAT member. "I've been at this eighteen years and I still learn new things every day."

An integral part of Team Aerospace, the OE Department coordinates its surveillance activities with other disciplines such as Aerospace Medicine and Public Health to fully characterize workspace exposures and the protective measures to be observed. From insuring the quality of drinking water, to monitoring air quality around burn pits in Iraq, the OE Department is on the job, anticipating - and mitigating - workplace hazards, keeping as many airmen as possible out of the clinics and on the job.