USACE Debris Recovery Vessel Crew Earns Army Risk Management Award

The debris recovery vessel patrols Puget Sound inland waters, collecting debris and obstructions that may damage vessels. For their job, the crew of five uses an onboard crane, chainsaws, and other equipment for their dangerous job of snagging debris out of the frigid waters.

Not surprisingly, they must apply risk management practices, to ensure employees minimize risking injury, damage or harm as they execute tasks and serve the nation.

It is the district’s “Taking Care of People” approach that secured Seattle District’s PUGET crew the Army Risk Management Award. Director of Army Safety and U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center Commander Brig. Gen. Jonathan Byrom presented the crew with their award at the USACE-owned and operated Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (Locks), Sept. 21.

“The fact that you had the wisdom to slow down and not cause an accident that would have caused significant loss of time and resources, must be recognized,” said Byrom. “If we can get soldiers across the entire Army to have this mindset, it would change our safety culture.”

Group photo of Seattle District's debris recovery crew MV PUGET, flanked by (left) Brig. Gen. Jonathan Byrom, director of Army Safety and U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center Commanding general, and (right) Brig. Gen. Geoff Van Epps, commander of USACE, Northwestern Division. Seattle District's Commander Kathryn Sanborn stands center. Byrom recognized the crew with the Army Risk Management Award at the USACE-owned and operated Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (Locks), Seattle, Washington, Sept. 21.
Group photo of Seattle District’s debris recovery crew MV PUGET, flanked by (left) Brig. Gen. Jonathan Byrom, director of Army Safety and U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center Commanding general, and (right) Brig. Gen. Geoff Van Epps, commander of USACE, Northwestern Division. Seattle District’s Commander Kathryn Sanborn stands center. Byrom recognized the crew with the Army Risk Management Award at the USACE-owned and operated Lake Washington Ship Canal and Hiram M. Chittenden Locks (Locks), Seattle, Washington, Sept. 21.

Byrom said he intends to share the PUGET crew’s example of applying deliberate risk management practices across the Army.  

USACE Northwestern Division Commander Brig. Gen. Geoff Van Epps attended the ceremony and shared the Army safety director’s views.

“The PUGET crew absolutely exemplified the right approach to safety,” said Van Epps. “The team was not only deliberate and methodical in their approach to risk management, but they respected and took the Army Corps’ mission seriously. We always advocate the right way to do things.”

For the crew, the award confirmed their obligation to keep safety at the forefront of everything they do.  

“Safety is always our No. 1 priority in navigation and on the PUGET,” said Captain Stephen “Skipp” Green. “We encourage this mindset from the top down, and it’s how I believe we caught this issue. I always put my trust in what the crane operator’s decision for the lift is, whether it can or can’t be accomplished.”

Feb. 14, 2023, was like any other workday. The crew’s task, to use its mounted crane to lift two, 6-ton small lock floats from the small lock at the Locks, was part of their standard operations. In fact, the crew, part of the district’s Waterway Maintenance Unit (WMU), had completed this maneuver using the same equipment and configuration countless times before with no issues.

For Small Craft Operator Luis Hernandez, completing this critical lift for the first time on Valentine’s Day presented the ideal opportunity to focus on risk management.   

“As the person sitting in the seat, the crane operator is ultimately responsible for pre-planning during all lifts including routine ones and making on-the-spot decisions during daily operations,” said Green. “They ensure the crew’s safety. The decisions they make are critical and always changing. Routine is what gets everyone in trouble. Attention to detail is key.”   

Original load charts show the critical lift is under 75 percent of the crane’s rated load. Concerned the new load charts might be more restrictive, Green, Hernandez, Crane Operator Jordan St. John, Section Marine Machinery Mechanic Joshua Deming, Small Craft Operator Silad On, and Locks Maintenance Lead John Ryan, reassessed the lift rather than assuming it was still safe.

With this approach, and after taking cursory measurements based on the tentative center location, they determined the lift might not be within specifications according to the new load charts. After Hernandez completed the critical lift plan, the team confirmed the lift may be at risk with the estimated radius and rigging.

“Luis ‘really went to town’ digging into all the resources available to him,” said Green. “He looked through the old load charts and noticed that while it was being performed safely and nothing had changed with the crane or on the vessel, they weren’t ‘within specs’ of our current load charts…That’s when the conversations started.”

They began collaborating with the Marine Design Center, the Corps of Engineers’ center of expertise and experience in developing and applying innovative strategies and technologies for naval architecture and marine engineering. This led to the crew updating its load charts, fully aware that any updates could affect the crane’s lift.

By testing their theory in the real world on a previously successful routine task, and applying deliberate risk management principles, the crew reduced the risk of potential costly accidents and future catastrophes.

“The team made the unpopular decision to go against the norm and complete a task they’d routinely done, but in a more methodical and intentional way, to prevent a mishap,” said WMU Chief Bradford Schultz II. “Their course of action empowered the WMU to set a precedent of applying risk management techniques now, to avoid disasters later.”

The Army Safety Awards Program recognizes, promotes, and motivates success in accident prevention through risk management, by recognizing safety accomplishments of individuals and units in the field.

“Fostering a safety-conscious environment, that includes everyone being a part of that process, leads to an amazing team,” said Green. “The PUGET provides an invaluable service to the Army Corps, the American public and the Pacific Northwest.”

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