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Rail News Home Safety

August 2010

Rail News: Safety

Rail safety: Making the railroad mantra 'Safety First' more than words in a manual


By Katie Berk, Assistant Editor

The manuals all say it. Every railroad employee hears it. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) makes it its mission.

Safety is a primary focus.

And by and large, FRA officials say railroads are doing a good job of keeping it a top priority.

“They’re on the ground constantly. They’re out on their railroad, talking to their people,” says FRA Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Compliance and Program Implementation Michael Logue.

For evidence, review recent FRA safety data. There were 1,385 deaths or injuries to employees on duty through April 2010 compared with 1,438 deaths or injuries during the same 2009 period, according to an agency report. That’s a 3.7 percent reduction.

“They’re doing about all they can eke out,” says Logue.

But there’s still one Holy Grail that remains elusive: zero fatalities and zero injuries.

The railroads have made remarkable strides, says FRA Associate Administrator for Regulatory and Legislative Operations Bob Lauby. But there’s still plenty of work to do as they proceed down the “zero” path.

“Any accident where we have an employee injured or killed means there’s more work to be done,” Lauby says.

Railroad execs know this, as well. Incremental safety improvement tops their respective to-do lists. To get there, they’re fine-tuning programs that have inched them closer to the zero-zero goal and implementing new initiatives to get even closer.

Whatever the program or initiative, communication is the cornerstone of an effective safety program.

“Improved communication that revolves around safety is a key element of any safety culture improvement process,” says David Sarkus, president and founder of David Sarkus International, a consulting firm that helps organizations “bridge the human performance gap in safety.” Sarkus’ clients have included RailAmerica Inc., which owns 40 regionals and short lines.

A Team Sport

To better communicate, employees need to talk to each other. They also need to work together more cooperatively.

“You can’t be a lone ranger,” says Union Pacific Railroad Vice President of Safety, Security and Environment Bob Grimalia. “You can’t be in isolation of all those around you. It’s a team sport, in many ways.”

To facilitate “team,” UP employs initiatives aimed at improving communication and creating a “total safety culture,” which Grimalia characterizes as “actively caring” for other employees and looking out for their well being, as well as your own.

Each day, UP employees discuss the tasks at hand — perhaps repairing a broken rail — and ask each other: “What could potentially go wrong?” Grimalia says they’re words you have to ask.

“It’s more than just conversation, it spurs thought,” he says.

Figuring out how to get employees to think/talk about safety in not-so-nebulous terms is a common theme among rail safety leaders. For BNSF Railway Co.’s “largely self-supervised workforce” making safety real is a necessity, says VP of Safety and Operations Support Mark Schulze.

“We believe that safety is very personal. Each of us owns safety,” he says. “We’ve got to make sure our employees are looking out for each other.”

To ensure that happens, BNSF has established new peer-to-peer programs, such as the Personal Responsibility In Decreasing Exposure (PRIDE) program at the Clovis, N.M. yard, through which employees are encouraged to identify situational and behavioral risks in their work group. The program is designed to ensure “employees understand what safe looks like,” says Schulze.

The program aims to foster a culture that shows pride, professionalism and commitment to a given set of work rules by placing the responsibility for safety enforcement with employees themselves. Workers are encouraged to observe their coworkers’ behavior and correct or report risk behaviors.

“It’s not just compliance with what they’re doing, but also that commitment to a safe work environment,” Schulze says.

It’s a commitment leaders at all levels strive to make. At Norfolk Southern Railway, employees commit to “safety first” by starting each work shift by conducting a job safety briefing. The discussion includes safety performance (“How long has it been since our last incident?”) potential hazards of the job they’re about to tackle and how to manage them. Crews also conduct several briefings throughout the day as they switch to a new task.

“We put a lot of effort and emphasis on good, quality safety briefings,” says NS VP of Safety and Environmental David Julian. “You can use that group communication to keep each other safe. Teamwork and communication is key.”

Being Your Brother’s Keeper

Safety leaders at a range of railroads echoed that sentiment: Employees need to monitor and communicate with each other — “be their brother’s keeper,” as Jeff Andrews, director of safety for the New York/Pennsylvania region of Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (GWI) puts it.

At GWI’s railroads, there are strict procedures in place — job safety briefings are conducted with the rank-and-file employees, management conducts morning departmental calls to discuss current safety issues, accident prevention bulletins are issued. But there’s only so much monitoring that management at GWI railroads — or any other, for that matter — can do. For rail management, cultivating an environment that facilitates that “I’m my brother’s keeper” approach is key. It can start with making sure employees feel comfortable discussing safety concerns with their managers.

Under Amtrak’s new Safe 2 Safer program, managers participate in a series of workshops and receive individual coaching. The aim of the three-year program: improve managers’ communication (especially listening) skills so that they can discuss safety issues openly with employees.

“If managers really listen when employees bring up safety issues to them and then take action, that raises management credibility,” says Amtrak Senior Director of Safety Peter Hall.

Something right in line with Sarkus’ strategy.

“A quick way to jump-start improvements is to make supervisors into better leaders,” he says.

At the Greater Cleveland Regional Transportation Authority, a hazard reporting system enables workers to report a safety concern in writing by filling a form — anonymously, if they’d prefer. GCRTA’s safety department tracks each form to ensure all concerns are addressed.

Having an opportunity to voice safety concerns is an important factor in the communication process.

During the past 18 months, CSX Transportation has begun a process designed to get labor unions more involved in the communication process by providing a formal avenue for employees to seek clarifications or changes to the Class I’s safety rules, says Jim Marks, CSXT’s VP of safety.

In addition, CSXT is in the second year of a multi-year program aimed at “raising mutual accountability” and opening lines of communication among managers and rank-and-file workers for safety issues. The program is designed to enable managers to make expectations clear to their employees, says Marks.

The program’s first year and a half was dedicated to intensive training with all managers on how to discuss difficult issues with workers, how to engage communications and how to lead and have people follow you, Marks says.

Now, the face-to-face portion is under way: Every transportation, engineering and mechanical manager meets one-on-one with his employees. The manager sets the expectations for his workers and lets them know what they can expect of him as a leader, says Marks.

Already, management has learned quite a bit, Marks says. The face-to-face meetings have turned up some “festering issues” among employees that the manager may not have been aware of — some that go back years, Marks says. And when issues are not being communicated, safety begins to unravel.

Festering issues are something railroads hope they never have. That’s why Copper Basin Railway President and Chief Operating Officer L.S. “Jake” Jacobson not only encourages open communication between employees and managers, he rewards it.

Years ago, Jacobson, a who collects silver U.S. dollars, heard that an employee had spotted a broken wheel in the yard and reported it. To show his appreciation, Jacobson gave the worker one of his silver dollars and said “Here’s an eagle for the eagle eye,” Jacobson recalls.

Since then, it has become Copper Basin policy that any employee who spots a wheel or rail defect and reports it receives a silver dollar from Jacobson.

“We need to realize that railroading is basically a very dangerous industry. People need to feel totally free to mention that sort of thing,” he says.

But Jacobson also knows a good safety record goes way beyond just communicating.

“You’ve got to walk the talk,” he says.

Getting Back to Fundamentals

For safety managers to walk it, they need to back it up with proper and continuous training. But, of course, to train properly, managers need to know where to focus their training.

That’s where safety audits and analyses can prove vital.

NS management is constantly reinforcing training and the proper way to perform tasks by focusing on safety audits. Local safety committees perform an audit of the work process to observe reinforce positive behavior and look for mistakes or areas for improvement, says Julian. However, the committees always try to keep a positive tone when correcting a mistake.

“It should be done in a way that an employee should be able to say ‘Thanks, I didn’t realize I did that. I need to focus on that,’” says NS’ Julian.

Adds UP’s Grimalia: “For success in safety, you’ve got to have the fundamentals of technical competence. Each one of us needs to know our jobs well.”

To that end, UP employs job safety analyses to find the best way to complete the task and then train employees in that method. By breaking down a task into its smallest components, Grimalia believes the Class I is able to find “the one best, safest way and make that the way we train, the way we observe and coach.”

“Safety is not just simply a reactive thing. You don’t wait for things to go wrong and develop a rule for the next time,” he adds.

As a result, UP officials also are examining close calls to better understand where the issues and opportunities for improvement lie, says Grimalia.

GWI uses regional safety improvement teams to look at these types of situations and focus on changing and improving behavior.

“Behavior probably is responsible for 95 percent of all injuries,” says GWI’s Andrews.

Accordingly, the company launched a behavior safety training class in 2008, through which employees are encouraged to follow the rules, avoid shortcuts and stay aware of their surroundings.

In addition, each worker is required annually to write a personal commitment statement and safety pledge for the coming year. In Andrews’ region, management has also developed an exercise known as the “safety blitz.” Each district is inspected once a year. Inspectors will spend about 36 hours observing each crew, inspecting all facilities and performing safety audits. Once they’ve completed the blitz, they’ll discuss the lessons learned along the way.

It’s that sort of up close and personal observation that’s also at the heart of Amtrak’s training initiatives. The railroad’s safety steering committee analyzes injuries to find out why some of the most common incidents occur so often.

“The key is in finding the barrier to doing that operation and then eliminating that barrier,” says Amtrak’s Hall. “Once you change the operation and make it more safe, you change the way people work, change the behaviors that they use. When you do that, you reduce injuries.”

Finding a way to retrain is essential because there are only so many hours in a day, says CSXT’s Marks. That’s why the Class I aims to revamp the company’s annual safety rules test, which ensures employees stay knowledgeable on safety policies. The road’s employees are required to pass it each year.

Under the structure of the current exam, the results will indicate whether workers knows the rule, but it won’t tell you how confident they are with applying it in real situations, Marks says.

The road has been doing test runs with a new testing model, Marks says. Instead of asking true-or-false questions about a specific rule, the new test sets up scenarios that present a situation and asks how the employee would deal with the situation. The test includes several questions related to the same scenario, but none specifically identify the applicable rule that applies to the situation. Employees are asked to choose from multiple answers and then rate how confident they are in their answers.

Through this method, managers are able to identify employees who are not very confident in their knowledge of the rules, and the worker who is “absolutely confident his answer is right, but is wrong,” says Marks. “That’s the dangerous employee. That’s who we want to find.”

This type of testing helps CSXT officials have “a true understanding of where training needs to focus and who needs immediate coaching and feedback,” Marks says.

The Root of the Problem

Finding the root-cause of an incident often can tell railroad officials precisely where they need to focus. GWI officials perform a root-cause analysis on “virtually anything that involves our personnel or property,” says Andrews. That includes injuries, “first-aid mishaps,” derailments and close calls.

At GCRTA, when something goes wrong, safety officials evaluate the entire every link in the chain, including management, Director of Safety Pamela McCombe says. The agency then follows up to make sure that corrective actions were implemented appropriately.

“When we evaluate the root causes, we’re able to have improvement in the system and in the implementation. It should not go back to the status quo,” she says.

A Family Matter

No matter which aspect of safety a railroad is focusing on, it all boils down to one sentiment, echoed by most every railroad official: “It needs to be a family approach,” says Copper Basin’s Jacobson.

As Jacobson is often fond of saying, having a safe railroad “takes a degree of give a damn.”

And that sentiment is echoed — in one form or another — throughout the industry.

“We want our employees to go home at the end of their work day in the same condition that they came to work. Back to their families, back to their friends,” says NS’ Julian.

And really, what better motivation could there be?

As BNSF’s Schulze puts it, “They’ve got all the reasons in the world waiting for them at home.”

FRA Pitches in to Aid Railroads’ Safety Efforts

Railroads do a lot to keep safety front and center, but they don’t have to do it all alone. The Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) is there to help, agency officials say.

To that end, the FRA has several programs in place to complement railroads’ efforts.

Launched in 1998, Switching and Operations Fatality Analysis (SOFA) is a program whose activities are geared toward achieving a goal of zero switching fatalities. In 1999, the SOFA Working Group issued a report detailing the cause of injuries and fatalities related to switching operations. The report also contained suggestions on how to prevent them. The group meets several times a year and advises railroads on how to avoid switching injuries. Prior to the program, railroads were averaging 11 switching fatalities a year. Today, that number is just over eight, says FRA Deputy Associate Administrator for Safety Compliance and Program Implementation Michael Logue.

For dealing with maintenance-of-way incidents, the agency recently created Fatality Analysis of Maintenance of Way Employees and Signalmen (FAMES). The FAMES study, which is still ongoing, aims to find common themes among MOW fatalities in an effort to reduce those fatalities. Once the study is completed, the FRA will use the information to advise railroads on reducing MOW injuries and fatalities.

Although the study hasn’t yet been released, the results mirror the results from the SOFA study, says Logue.

In addition to these programs, FRA inspectors are working beyond their traditional nine-to-five day in order to inspect second- and third-shift railroad employees.

“The railroads are open 24/7, so we should inspect them 24/7,” says Logue. Currently, one-third of the FRA’s inspections are completed outside of typical business hours.

“I’d like to think that’s a factor in the reduction of injuries,” says Logue.

— Katie Berk


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