By Lt. Col. Angela Ochoa
314th Airlift Wing Safety Chief
This past September, I had the privilege of attending family training at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hines Blind Rehabilitation Center near Chicago.
My husband, Raul, is a former C-130 pilot and Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom veteran who suffered from cardiac arrest last year that resulted in an anoxic brain injury, rendering him legally blind due to cortical vision impairment.
At the conclusion of family training, not only did I have a better appreciation of the challenges that people who are visually impaired face, but I also left with a renewed sense of risk management. After all, blind rehabilitation really is about teaching someone who had vision how to live life safely without sight, a primary sense. Isn’t that what the risk management process is all about: figuring out a way to do a task safely with a specific set of challenges?
One of the biggest skills that Raul had to learn during training was orientation and mobility. It’s as simple as it sounds, with the focus on orienting to an environment and getting from one place to the next. Raul has a specialized GPS device he uses to help him navigate using all verbal commands and simple buttons. He also uses special procedures, like “blocker cars,” to cross the street. For example, he waits until he sees a car moving in the direction that he wants to go and initiates his move with that car so that it becomes a block to stop other traffic from turning into him. Through the use of material (GPS device) and non-material solutions (blocker car procedures), he can safely cross streets on his own.
The other major area Raul focused upon was cooking. He has special tools to assist him in the kitchen; for instance, a cut-resistant glove to wear on his hand for holding food to be cut. He also has a special cutting board and a rocker knife for slicing difficult foods. For the range and oven, he uses tactile markings to identify where the dials need to be for different temperatures. He always cooks with a timer since he cannot see when the food is completely cooked and he sticks closely to recipes when cooking to ensure the meal is prepared properly. In the kitchen we again see both material (cut-resistant gloves and tactile markings) and non-material solutions (the use of timers and adhering strictly to the recipe) to overcome the challenges he faces.
Raul also participated in some woodworking while at the center and crafted a tablet holder. He even used a saw to do it! Once again, he used procedures and technology to assist in mitigating the risk of cutting his finger off. The technology he used is the Saw Stop, which has an automatic breaking system that stops the saw within a millisecond when it comes into contact with human body parts. Across the Air Force, many shops use the Saw Stop to prevent unnecessary injuries. Raul also had a very specific set of procedures he had to follow while using the saw, which included preparing everything in advance. Only when all his materials were in the proper place would he plug in the saw and turn it on. Once he was finished, he immediately unplugged the saw.
What Raul learned and practiced is simple risk management. We have detailed processes outlined in AFI 90-802, Risk Management, but when it really comes down to it, risk management is pretty simple:
1) Identify the task and hazards of the task.
2) Think through your plan of action and come up with ways to eliminate or minimize the hazard.
3) Implement solutions and evaluate. When thinking through the task and hazards, it is important to think through them both separately and together as a unit. The task or hazard alone may not pose much risk, but together they can be a recipe for disaster. We also must accept that hazards can be in our equipment, our plan, or ourselves.
Our own personal hazards can be due to lack of experience, lack of training or even simply because we did not get a good night’s rest. How often do we accurately assess our personal hazards? While I was at blind rehabilitation family training, I had the opportunity to meet Rico, a veteran who woke up one morning with a total loss of vision due to a rare genetic disease. He was attending blind rehabilitation training for the first time after living life legally blind for over eight years. He lived in such high denial for so long that he refused treatment and “managed” his way through his disability. He told me that his biggest regret was not getting help earlier.
How often do we ask for and accept help when we need it? Are we humble enough to acknowledge our own limitations and biases? When thinking of solutions, don’t be afraid to think outside the box and consider both material and non-material solutions. Maybe you have the solution that has not been thought of yet. When you are struggling with a task or aren’t sure of the right thing to do, a good wingman or supervisor can help. Collaboration is a valuable tool when solving complex problems.
Once you have a solution, take a moment to get a common sense check in order to help identify unintended consequences. Supervision is key during implementation, especially during high-risk tasks. Remember you are not in this alone, nobody is ever alone.
There are many activities we accomplish every day that we often take for granted, some as simple as getting up, making ourselves breakfast and driving to work. Whether it’s flying a challenging mission profile or going for a hike with friends, we can all use risk management.