SPANGDAHLEM AIR BASE, Germany --
On the third floor of building 175 on Spangdahlem Air Base, Germany, 17 members of the 52nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron Bioenvironmental Engineering flight work to ensure the long-term safety and health of members of the 52nd Fighter Wing.
The members of the Bioenvironmental Engineering flight are responsible for assessing and making recommendations to reduce the ongoing threat of both short and long-term adverse health issues the community faces from hazards in the workplace and environment.
“We strive to prevent acute and chronic workplace health issues such as cancer and hearing loss,” said U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Timothy Jones, 52nd AMDS Bioenvironmental Engineering flight occupational health NCO in charge. “Our role is to measure, assess and control hazards, and prevent personnel from having health issues 40 or 50 years down the line.”
The responsibilities of the Bioenvironmental Engineering flight are broken down into four different focuses.
“We have four main divisions in our office,” said U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Heidi Grandin, 52nd AMDS Bioenvironmental Engineering flight commander. “We have occupational health, environmental health, radiation safety, and emergency response and readiness.”
The first division, occupational health, involves examining workplace processes and hazards at various locations on base and at geographically separated units.
“If members of Spangdahlem Air Base have processes they are doing that involve chemical, radiation, or physical hazards, we will go in and assess their work area to find out what their hazards are and how to protect them,” Grandin said. “We will tell them, ‘you are using this chemical,’ ‘you need to wear this glove while you do this process’ or ‘for this piece of equipment you need earplugs’. It can get very specific. We try to keep it as simple as possible so they are not having to use a ton of different personal protective equipment, but for some shops it gets more complex than others.”
For environmental health, the primary focus is ensuring the water provided to service members, on base and in a deployed environment, is safe for consumption.
“We have a schedule of weekly, monthly, and annual checks we do on the water according to regulatory compliance, making sure it is drinkable,” Grandin said. “In the new school that opened up, we were monitoring for lead and copper before they opened. In emergency conditions we also sample the water, as required.”
The radiation safety division monitors recurring job related exposure and ensures radiation sources on base have all the proper permits.
“For the munition support squadrons, we monitor any radiation doses workers are exposed to,” Grandin said. “We are also the installation radiation safety office, so any contractors who are bringing anything onto base that has a radiation source, like density testing the soil for a construction site, has to go through us so we can ensure the permits comply with all regulations before they can get on base.”
The last division, emergency response and readiness, ranges from responding to suspicious substances to major incidents.
“It is possible for us to respond to anything from white powders to fuel spills and even aircraft incidents,” said U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Kevin Johnson, 52nd AMDS Bioenvironmental Engineering technician. “We will team up with different agencies to conduct a health risk assessment and give recommendations on what PPE is needed to protect the other individuals who are going to go in and do their job.”
Part of the emergency response and readiness division involves training and responding to events, both on and off base, as well as in deployed environments.
“For exercises, we are part of the chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear cell with Emergency Management,” Grandin said. “We have the knowledge and expertise for chemical warfare agents and are able to advise the commander of what protection levels to wear. We have different pieces of equipment that can sample in the plume area or take a sample and bring it back to our equipment in order to give us an idea of what agent we are dealing with and the levels of contamination.”
Some members of the Bioenvironmental Engineering career field enjoy the variation each day can bring and the opportunity to see what other career fields do on base.
“The best part about Bioenvironmental Engineering is the variety of responsibilities and programs within the career field,” Johnson said. “I like the case files, the health risk assessments, they can vary. I have seen stuff from the medical side all the way up to the jets. It allows me to understand the responsibility of different shops. I get to see how the fire department, crash and recovery team and the fuel system repair team work. It is something different every day.”
For anyone interested in a career in Bioenvironmental Engineering, a background in science can help.
“I definitely recommend you have a solid foundation in math, science and a little bit of physics theory,” said U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Justin Lee, 52nd AMDS Bioenvironmental Engineering flight chief. “Those subjects would benefit you in this career field. It does not mean you cannot be successful in our career field without an understanding of those subjects, it just means that would be a good starting point for you. I recommend a career in Bioenvironmental Engineering to anybody, especially those with good time management skills, because you are going to need that as well.”
Those who choose to join the Bioenvironmental Engineering career field receive thorough training.
“Our technical school is located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio and is about three months long,” Jones said. “It covers each core component of our jobs. It prepares us to come to our first base with a solid foundation, ready to perfect our craft and prepared for extensive on-the-job training.”
The Bioenvironmental Engineering flight is a resource available to all workplaces of the 52nd FW. Their mission extends across base and they can provide solutions to workplace hazards and issues.
“People think it is normal to power through health issues at work, but they do not necessarily have to. We hear concerns like, ‘this piece of equipment is really loud, I wear my hearing protection and I still get a headache every day’,” Grandin said. “Or ‘I work with this chemical at work and I get headaches.’ They have concerns they push through every day, and they think it is normal. It does not have to be normal. We may be able to help fix that problem. We can take a look at the processes they are doing, and we can probably do either an engineering control or substitution. We can come up with a better chemical that is less hazardous they can use in its place.”
Members of Bioenvironmental Engineering seek to increase the impact they have on the base and welcome any opportunities to do so.
“Our team is always actively looking for ways we can increase our value and footprint to the wing and its mission,” Lee said. “We understand we are a very customer service based function and support a lot of different areas. Our job is to work to make solving any workplace hazards easier on our customers, so they get what they need. That is what is awesome about my squad.”
As for the team itself, Bioenvironmental Engineering flight leaders praise the efforts and ingenuity of their members.
“My team is the best,” Lee said. “We are leading the way. We are innovative, we think outside the box, we go for the gusto, we shoot for the stars and land somewhere on the moon. I cannot ask for anything more!"