By Sergeant 1st Class Walter Van Ochten
118th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment
ACHIOTE, Panama – As soldiers unload equipment and dig foundation trenches, there is an ever-present sight of one soldier in full uniform with reflector belt around his shoulder and white hard hat emboldened with the word ‘Safety’ to ensure risk is mitigated.
“Safety is the number one thing for this task force,” said Lt. Col. Malcolm Walker, task force commander for Beyond the Horizon-2013-Panama, to the newly-arrived service members here April 1.
Beyond the Horizon 2013 is U.S. Southern Command humanitarian and civic-assistance program. U.S. Army South serves as the operational command, with tactical control coming from the 244th Engineer Battalion from Denver, Colo.
Every day at the Achiote work site, where the task force and Panamanian forces are working side-by-side to build a bathroom unit for a nearby school, the task force commander or the noncommissioned officer in charge of the work site starts with a reminder for the Soldiers of the 284th Engineer Company, 961st Engineer Battalion, 420th Engineer Brigade to stay vigilant about the things they do and to finish the job without injuries.
“I know you heard this yesterday and the day before that, and you will hear it every day here until we leave,” said Sgt. 1st Class Brian Valencia, construction site NCOIC, 284th Engineer Company, 961st Engineer Battalion, 420th Engineer Brigade from Albuquerque, N.M., during his morning safety briefing. He outlines the things that the soldiers need to do on the site to prevent any injuries.
Staff Sgt. Jesus Rivera-Garcia, worksite safety NCO, is the soldier with the white hardhat on.
“The soldiers might get tired of hearing it,” said Rivera-Garcia who hails from Santa Fe, N.M., “but it’s important that the message is reinforced daily to help keep them from becoming complacent and getting hurt.”
“There are a lot of tripping hazards out here: rebar, stakes in the ground and the footing trenches that we just finished digging. Also, the heat here is a problem; they need to keep drinking water, eating their lunch and we have set up a tent for shade.”
The simplest and most noticeable safety feature for these engineer soldiers is the personal protective equipment.
“At a minimum they need to be wearing a hard hat, eye protection, gloves and all engineers most be wearing steel toed [boots],” Rivera-Garcia explained.
At the end-of-the-day meeting, no injuries were reported, and everyone would be returning the next day, which would start off with another safety briefing.