Active construction sites can be dangerous places. Full of heavy mechanical equipment and other hazards, the risk posed to the workers at these sites is often high. But there are other, less obvious workplace dangers that even those who spend their days behind a desk can face, like stress, high blood pressure and lack of support or fulfillment.
Those charged with preventing and mitigating these workplace dangers play an important role in the success of an organization but are often in the background, working behind the scenes. Occupational health professionals and other safety specialists are the frontline for workplace safety. Yet their services can remain elusive to the very employees they serve.
Claudine Volkart, registered nurse and occupational health nurse for the Northwestern Division, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, hopes to change this and put workplace health and safety at the forefront of every district in the division to prevent workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses.
“One of my goals from a regional perspective … is as I develop the division program and as I work with the districts, we develop a more robust health promotion pipeline for people,” said Volkart.
The Northwestern Division is comprised of five districts and is one of the largest geographically, spanning 12 states and three time zones. The missions of the division are varied. This can pose a challenge for Volkart and her occupational health and safety colleagues as they try to standardize the health and safety program of the division.
“I think the challenge is, from my perspective, helping to craft guidance that is generic enough that everyone can adopt or improve upon it and specific enough so people really understand what their responsibilities are,” said Volkart.
USACE occupational health and safety professionals are responsible for identifying workplace hazards, monitoring health issues and implementing preventative measures in the workplace. The level of services offered varies by district. Some can operate full health clinics, while other districts rely on one or two individuals to manage a health and safety program for upwards of 1,000 employees.
Although her position is regional, Volkart lives and works out of the Kansas City District. She hopes to grow the division’s occupational health program, starting with the hiring and development of occupational health and safety professionals at the district level.
“I’m really interested in getting an occupational health nurse in each district and then from there, growing that occupational health nurse workforce,” said Volkart. “Depending on how robust occupational health program is, [the occupational health and safety professionals] may or may not get all of the information that they need to understand their role and how to be effective in that role.”
While she is relatively new to USACE, Volkart is no stranger to the occupational health profession or working in sometimes austere environments. She served in the U.S. Navy for 24 years as a hospital corpsman practicing preventative medicine, ambulatory care and emergency medicine. Sometimes the only enlisted practitioner in a unit, her assignments included deploying with the Navy’s mobile construction battalions, also known as the Seabees, and working on the USS Howard, a guided missile destroyer, providing all medical care for the crew.
“I definitely got a good crash course in construction ratings [with the Seabees],” said Volkart. “Ships are industrial environments – they are harsh, they have lots of hard edges, they have lots of equipment and machinery … so I think it prepared me well for my life on the outside after I retired [from the Navy.]”
Volkart’s time in the Navy and her education and training as a registered nurse have provided her with the knowledge and skills to implement an effective occupational health and safety program for the Northwestern Division. However, according to Volkart, health and safety must be the top priority of everyone throughout the division in order to be effective.
“Positive persistence is really the key to affecting that culture change,” said Volkart. “Behind each and every one of those injuries is a person, their family, their work team, the mission; those are all things that suffer when we are not doing everything we can to protect worker health. But it’s a cooperative effort.”
Volkart’s position at the division allows her the opportunity to guide, influence and implement the Northwestern Division’s health and safety program across all five districts, as well as at the national USACE level. Again, Volkart acknowledges that she is in a position to affect positive change, but only when those at every level of the enterprise prioritize workplace safety.
“It’s my responsibility as a leader to clear barriers for people,” said Volkart. “If that’s education, if that’s resources, whatever that is, that’s my job as a leader, but I’m only effective if the person on the frontline knows what to do and when to do it.”