Monday, March 3, 2014

March 3rd, 2014

Fresh Air Matters... with Capt. Yaw

How many times will we complain about the 'lack of a maintenance culture', and yet still do nothing about it? As an aviator, I understand the essential need for appropriate, timely, maintenance. Without our regular checks, and associated actions, aviation would quickly be an extinct industry - along with its aviators! There will always be something or other that goes wrong, despite maintenance; you can ask Boeing and Airbus about that! Yet, the simple reason that we all have so much confidence in aviation is that the people in aviation take everything about it, including maintenance, seriously. The aircraft cleaning team take their jobs as seriously as the cabin crew, the Air Traffic Controllers take as much responsibility for the safety of the passengers and aircraft as the refuelling personnel... and of course, the engineers and finally the pilots - all take their jobs seriously, knowing the importance of preventive, line and heavy maintenance. It is all about understanding the importance of appropriate and timely action when things are not as they should be.

Oh, that is all very well for aviation - they have peoples lives at stake, so it makes sense... but what about other industries? We all remember reading about a construction here and there that has collapsed, apparently through inappropriate (read that as lack of) steel in the concrete columns... plus, most likely, an apparent shortage of cement in the concrete mix itself, coupled with the decision to ignore cracks or other signs of an issue developing. Here the risk to life is as great as in an aircraft. In fact, it is, in my opinion, worse. Those who travel in a plane, generally, have an appreciation of the 'risk' involved. How many of us consider the 'risk' of a building collapsing when we go to work, shop or lunch? Of course, buildings need to built to standard - AND maintained to standard - to protect lives and livelihoods. 

Recently, we decided to 'restrict access' to the tower at Kpong Airfield. Why? Because we spotted a little bit of rot in a timber. Not enough to make it 'unsafe' but enough to require maintenance. Yes, we even inspect our structures regularly - and take appropriate action! Here is the fun part - once we started replacing 'any bit of wood with signs of rot or lack of strength' we found several other members that would, if not changed, decay further and create issues down the line. We definitely changed some parts that didn't warrant the short term expense. Now, we have a tower that is a good as new and back in full service. It would have been cheaper to 'leave it longer'... It would have been cheaper to 'only change the worst looking ones'.... it would have been cheaper to take a very different approach to maintenance... but it would not have been appropriate in our mindset of 'an aviators approach to safety'.

We can, as always, look at motor vehicle maintenance in our part of the world - but should not do so unless we also look at the condition and maintenance policy of the road surfaces. So much of the damage to our vehicles comes from the poor quality of our roads. How can we expect a tro-tro or taxi driver to care about the holes in the body-work of his vehicle if they see that the roads have more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese? Somewhere, somehow, we need to set the example of 'responsibility for a safety and maintenance aware culture'

Perhaps some of our challenges come from a lack of understanding of what we are supposed to do in our work. I remember a time in Europe when a 'toilet cleaner' was a profession - and it was not a popular one - in fact people would look down on this essential work - because of the image portrayed that they simply 'clean toilets'... It really is an essential job, but you won't find many 'toilet cleaners' in Europe anymore. Interestingly, the toilets are cleaner where there are no toilet cleaners...! How's that? The title, and with it the perceived importance of the job, changed. 'Health and Sanitation Worker', is the title in vogue. It expresses far more the importance of the job. Cleaning toilets is not just about flushing and scrubbing a toilet bowl. It involves a lot more - and without those who do the full task of cleaning, washing, disinfecting, changing toilet rolls, towels, etc., there would be a lot more disease around - and our visits to the 'washroom' would be unpleasant to say the least. Sometimes, just a change in the title of a job, along with recognition of what it involves, can change attitudes.

If a driver sees himself as a 'driver', and that is all - he drives until the vehicle breaks down and looks for a 'fitter' who simply 'fits' a new (or more often used) something. Perhaps our taxi and tro-tro drivers should be renamed 'Vehicle and Passenger Safety Managers'! Would a fitter take his job more seriously if he were referred to as a 'Vehicle Structure and Maintenance Controller'? I know the importance of recognition - and I suspect that many of our challenges come from failure to recognise the demands, and requirements of a job. Thus we endure lackadaisical attitudes and, consequently, rising accident rates.

When we look at the overall infrastructure, and the economic challenges around us, we realise that 'maintenance' is needed far more than the current 'wait till it breaks and take action' mantra that appears to have permeated almost every corner of society. With that, I include the Government Agencies. We are told that it is twenty five times cheaper to maintain a road than to wait till it needs replaced. Yes, we can save millions of Cedis simply by maintenance. Perhaps, and just perhaps, we could promote such a change in the approach to road maintenance by changing the name of the Ministry of Roads and Highways to 'the Ministry of Roads and Potholes', making the potholes a clear responsibility - and action point! I did have a long list of suggestions for renaming Ministries and departments, but have omitted it, leaving them to your imagination! 

Before we conclude, let us look at most important machine in every organisation and administration: The Employee. 

Employees need maintained - and, just like a computer, upgraded. Maintaining the personnel in an organisation is essential for sustainable growth and a positive working environment. Such maintenance of the mind, spirit and skill set of one's staff is generally done through training programmes. Such programmes need not be expensive, but they do need to be effective. All staff should undergo some health and safety training - and all staff should be 'assessed and encouraged' in their functions - even if simply done in-house .

Pilots undergo 'recurrent training' on a regular basis. During such training the pilot is expected to show 'how and why' they carry out certain tasks. The practical part may be done in a simulator, or in an aircraft. The instructor/assessor will create scenarios to see what and how the pilot does. It is all about keeping daily skills honed, and ensuring understanding. Statistics show that recurrent training reduces accidents, improves pilots knowledge as well increasing their ability to cope with stressful situations when they occur - with much improved decision making. It saves money in the long run too!

Training should be seen as essential to our staff, in the same way that we view changing the oil in our engines. It makes everything run smoother, and reminds our personnel of their roles and responsibilities...

Capt. Yaw is Chief Flying Instructor and Chief Engineer at WAASPS, and Pilot/Engineer with Medicine on the Move, Humanitarian Aviation Logistics ( e-mail

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