“The safety of the people shall be the highest law.” – Cicero
Tomorrow is a big day for me. In my 4 ½ months as the Deputy Facility Manager of U.S. Embassy Bogotá, I’ve made some soft impacts. From authoring policy notices to making decisions on facility management matters to engaging with other agencies in all of Mission Colombia and more, I’ve established myself as a quality #2 behind the Senior Facility Manager. Tomorrow, however, I take a huge step forward and as Good Ol’ JR often said on WWF/WWE Raw broadcasts, “business is about to pick up”. Tomorrow, I step into one of the more high-profile roles in an embassy or consulate in my debut as the Post Occupational Safety and Health Officer.
The Foreign Affairs Manual—or FAM, as it is called in my world—makes it quite clear: the principal officer at each post—generally the ambassador, chargé d’affaires, or consul general—has overall responsibility for the safety and health of post employees. The FAM further emphasizes that the deputy principal officer—generally the deputy chief of mission or DCM—is the designated post safety and occupational health administrator, assuming responsibility for ensuring the safety, health, and environmental management (SHEM) programs are funded, implemented, and operationally functional according to Department policies. To carry out the safety programs and ensure that the principal officer is governing a safe and healthy diplomatic post, the DCM appoints a post occupational safety and health officer. Affectionately known as the POSHO, this person is usually a Foreign Service Officer or Foreign Service Specialist from the post’s Management section. More times than not, the role of POSHO falls to the Facility Manager. And quite frankly, it makes sense considering that all Facility Managers fall under the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations much like the Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management (OBO/OPS/SHEM), which oversees and directs the Department’s safety, health, and environmental programs abroad.
As POSHO, the FAM tasks me with managing the SHEM program at my diplomatic post. I’m charged with developing the administrative procedures and budget needed to meet all SHEM program requirements, goals, and objectives while collaborating with other major offices and agencies at post. It’s a very critical job as I’m essentially setting forth a safety and health culture that touches every person tied to the diplomatic mission. In my case, that would include all U.S. direct-hire Foreign Service employees, eligible family members, locally employed staff, contractors, and any visitor. Basically, if you set foot on the embassy grounds or inside an embassy residence, you’re going to be affected by my safety policy. To assist with such a daunting assignment, most POSHOs are equipped with a POSHO assistant. To prepare POSHOs for this assignment, OBO/OPS/SHEM sponsors training that specifically teaches POSHOs the safety culture of the Department in a foreign environment. I took that training about a month ago and it was very intense. We learned about the different facets of SHEM, which include: (1) implementation; (2) workplace hazard identification, documentation, and reporting; (3) mishap investigation and reporting abroad; (4) training; (5) recordkeeping; (6) systems safety and health planning analysis; and (7) program administration. There are a lot of FAM and OBO/OPS/SHEM references that drive all of those facets but I have to contend with the added factor of local laws…from the perspective of the City of Bogotá and the Republic of Colombia.
While this position does carry a lot of power, it’s not necessarily an authoritarian type of situation. It’s not just me and the POSHO assistant carrying the mantle on all things safety and health for Mission Colombia. There is a standing committee that I work with in coordinating this critical program. The DCM is the chairman of this committee but I serve as the executive director and work alongside other committee members to establish goals and objectives. Additionally, as POSHO, I am an ex officio member of the post Interagency Housing Board. I don’t get to vote but I’m there to address health, safety, and certification issues related to residential housing.
Embassy Bogotá is a very big diplomatic post. Our mission here is fast and far-reaching. Safety is of paramount concern here…perhaps even more than security though the Regional Security Officer would never admit to that. The task before me is to make sure everyone under Chief of Mission authority is being safe in their workplace, in their residence, in their vehicles, and even in their leisure. The task before me is to make sure the facilities and grounds on the embassy compound are safe for all that use them. The task before me is to ensure all residences are safe in terms of quality of life. I’m definitely taking this role seriously. In fact, my stance will be “I’ll always choose safety over convenience” because I know there will be diplomats who will challenge me on it…like with space heaters here in Colombia. I’ll probably become an unpopular figure based on decisions and recommendations I make from this position but if the end result is a person being safer and healthier, I’ll accept that willingly.
I’m ready to get to work.