New Safety Chief Inspires District to Reach for the Star in Safety Performance

When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Transatlantic Middle East District (TAM) achieved its stage 3 certification in the Corps Safety and Occupational Health Management System (CE-SOHMS), it was the culmination of roughly 5 years of effort.

Arriving at the district near the end of this process, Vanessa Matheny, TAM’s newly appointed Safety and Occupational Health Manager was in the enviable position of being able to rest on that accomplishment. But that’s just not in her character and Matheny immediately set the district on a course to achieve another safety accolade, the Army’s Safety and Occupational Health Star Award.

The Army Star represents an Army organization’s ongoing and long-term commitment to putting safety at the forefront of it’s practices.

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“My goal is to sustain and improve the Corps of Engineers Safety and Occupational Health Management System (CE-SOHMS) and receive the Army Star certification,” said Matheny.

Matheny’s path to TAM was created much the same way a safety program is, one step at a time.

It began in childhood when she lived in South Korea as a military dependent, which gave her unique perspective on world cultures and military life.

About her childhood, Matheny shared, “As a military brat, I enjoyed traveling, learning about different cultures, and playing softball and soccer.”

Her educational journey took her to the University of Texas at San Antonio where she pursued a degree in public health with a focus on community health. Matheny’s involvement in Air Force ROTC during her university years furthered her understanding of military etiquette and culture.

After college graduation, Matheny applied for various positions through the Department of Defense Recent Graduate’s program. Despite receiving offers in various career fields, she ultimately chose to pursue the safety internship position, recognizing its alignment with her degree. The internship program is a two-year initiative sponsored by the Department of the Army. This program provided valuable training and experience, paving the way for her full-time role as a safety and occupational health specialist.

During her internship, Matheny underwent various trainings to develop her skills and knowledge in occupational safety. She took OSHA classes at Eastern Kentucky University and a month-long training at Fort Rucker. She said, “I learned a lot about regulatory standards and best practices in workplace safety.”

The internship included working in the safety office at the Buffalo district for the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Unlike the engineering internship program that involve rotations through different divisions, Matheny’s internship remained solely within the safety program. This specialized training provided her with in-depth knowledge and experience specific to safety and occupational health.

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Upon completing her training and demonstrating her proficiency in safety practices, she  was hired as a full-time safety and occupational health specialist at USACE’s Buffalo district. Graduating from the internship program Matheny earned the Department of Army Safety and Occupational Health (CP-12) certificate. This certification not only recognized her successful completion of the program but also fulfilled a requirement for obtaining her a permanent position.

Matheny’s role as a safety specialist at the Buffalo district involved overseeing safety protocols within the construction and operations divisions, with a particular focus on supporting district dredging program, civil works, operation and maintenance of locks and dams. Additionally, she provided support to the environmental division, where she gained valuable experience in groundwater sampling and utilizing equipment for detecting radiation or chemical substances in the ground.

“I really enjoyed the cross disciplinary experience,” she said, “Collaborating with the environmental and health physicists’ teams allowed me to contribute to comprehensive safety measures while also gaining insights into related fields, enhancing my effectiveness as a safety specialist.”

Desiring more international military construction experience, in January 2022, she embarked on a 120-day assignment at TAM as a safety specialist. This assignment provided her with exposure to different construction projects and safety protocols in the Middle East, further expanding her expertise in the field.

In late 2022, Matheny took on a new role as a safety specialist at the Japan district. This position allowed her to immerse herself in the rich culture and natural beauty of Japan. Matheny said, “I love Japan and enjoyed weekend travel experiencing the diverse landscapes and seasonal changes. Mount Fuji was a particularly stunning sight.”

Matheny also appreciated the opportunity to engage with the local culture and meet Japanese nationals, which provided her with valuable insights. Working alongside Japanese contractors, she observed their safety management systems, which made her job easier and underscored the importance of safety in the workplace.

Matheny noted, “There’s is a high level of organization and dedication to safety within the Japanese construction industry.”

In December 2023, Matheny arrived at TAM. Transatlantic Division, Safety and Occupational Chief, Kevin Raposa said, “Having worked with Vanessa in the past, I knew her experience as a safety professional, working OCONUS, along with her strong work ethic, can-do attitude, and fresh ideas, made her the perfect fit for TAM.”

Meeting Raposa’s expectations, she is quickly moving forward to implement her ideas and contribute to the enhancement of the safety program within the district. Looking ahead, Matheny is already planning events for National Safety Month in June.

Matheny said, “I have many activities planned for Safety Week in June. This includes, fire drills, CPR and first aid training, fire extinguisher drills, and other optional or required trainings. The safety office will also organize a health fair focusing on ergonomics, employee assistance programs, and other relevant topics for employee health and safety.”

All of those activities are geared towards keeping the district staff engaged in CE-SOHMS and working towards   the Army Star certification,” said Matheny.

To achieve this objective, Matheny recognizes the importance of educating the district staff about CE-SOHMS and the requirements for Army Star certification. Matheny said, “The objective is to create a culture where safety is prioritized and ingrained into daily operations.”

Matheny’s proactive attitude and willingness to take initiative are valuable assets in fostering a culture of continuous improvement in safety and occupational health. She understands the importance of trying new approaches and learning from both successes and failures.

Matheny said, “I have a lot of ideas that I’m willing to try. If it doesn’t work, at least I know I tried and can move on to the next idea.” Matheny’s mindset of not letting fear hold her back from pursuing her ideas aligns well with the beliefs of innovation and progress.