SLSI: 100 Safety Culture Assessments

Written by American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association

RAILWAY AGE, NOVEMBER 2021 ISSUE: In October, the 100th Safety Culture Assessment (SCA), deemed the most robust model for assessing safety culture in the U.S. railroad industry()1, was completed on a short line railroad by the subject matter experts at the Short Line Safety Institute (SLSI). SCAs are voluntary, non-punitive, confidential and performed at no cost to the hosting railroad.

Tom Murta, SLSI Executive Director, described the SCA as “the most important process in which your railroad can participate to understand the strengths and areas of opportunity in your safety culture.” As part of the Assessment, the SLSI team will provide the railroad with templates, and other materials to assist in closing any gaps or addressing areas of opportunity with the goal of continuously improving safety on the railroad.

Established in 2015 with a grant from the Federal Railroad Administration Office of Research, Development and Technology, the SLSI is focused on the people side of the safety equation, or safety culture, defined as the shared values, actions and behaviors that demonstrate a commitment to safety over competing goals and demands.

Safety culture has been identified as a top priority for the short line and regional railroad industry. Class II and III railroads are small businesses, and often lack the resources to make significant investments in developing training beyond what is required by regulations, or to develop a tool to measure safety culture on their railroad. The SLSI was formed to fill this need for smaller railroads. 

The goal of the SLSI and its programs is for the short line and regional railroad industry to perform at an increasingly high level of safety because of a focus not only on compliance, but also on safety culture.

“The response to the SCA has been tremendous among short line and regional railroads, and the experience has been eye-opening for some of the participants,” stated Sam Cotton, SLSI Director of Safety Culture Programs. “Although a railroad can be compliant regarding all regulations, a strong safety culture can bolster the potential that employees will act in a manner that prioritizes safety above any competing demand. This includes being able to feel comfortable in identifying and mitigating risk at any time.” 

Cotton and the team collectively have more than 500 years of safety experience on short line railroads. Assessors evaluate the practice of Ten Core Elements of a Strong Safety Culture (as defined by the U.S. Department of Transportation Safety Council) in a number of ways including surveys, in-person observations, reviews of safety documents and interviews with employees at all levels of the organization. The result identifies areas of both strength and opportunities at the railroad and offers resources to address opportunity areas.

Annual post-assessment systematic reviews of the aggregate SCAs have identified several commonalities. For instance, across short lines, Safety Values (the perception across all levels of the railroad that safety is prioritized, and safety is valued above all competing demands), Employee Empowerment (employees feel that they are empowered to work safely), and Approaching Management with Safety Concerns (employees believe they are able to bring safety concerns to management without fear of retribution) were identified as strengths in the 2020 review.2

Many short line railroads share the same opportunity areas, and as those are identified, the SLSI team develops resources and tools to assist them in closing the gaps. 

The popular Leadership Development Training class was created in response to an opportunity area related to Core Element #7—There is Open and Effective Communication Across the Railroad. This class is a three-day interactive event that has become one of the most sought-after resources offered by the SLSI.

During COVID-19, training did not slow down, as the class was presented remotely via video platform. Among respondents to the feedback survey who participated in either the in-person or virtual Leadership Development Training, 92% would recommend this class to other colleagues in their organization. Additionally, 99% of respondents said the class was a worthwhile investment in their career development, based on analyses from the SLSI. 

Other tools developed include downloadable posters, video training and Safety Tips for use in safety briefings. 

A new offering is the Time2 SCA, which measures and evaluates change in safety culture in the intervening years since the first SCA was conducted. “Ten railroads have already taken advantage of the Time2 SCA, and we have been very impressed with the significant and noted changes in areas that were previously identified as opportunities, and the number of action steps closed,” shared Cotton.

Another common area of opportunity is additional training on the regulatory requirements for the safe movement of Hazardous Materials (Hazmat), and preparation for responding to a Hazmat incident. 

With a grant from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) in 2017, the SLSI began offering a comprehensive class on Hazmat Safety. Training can be offered directly to employees, or can be presented in a train-the-trainer format to supplement the training already being offered on a railroad. 

The class typically incorporates the Safety Train, made available for use through the SLSI’s partnership with the Firefighters Education and Training Foundation. The Safety Train is equipped with a training classroom, a variety of tank cars, and a flat car containing a wide assortment of tank car valves and fittings for hands-on training. To date, the SLSI has trained more than 1,400 individuals from 279 organizations.

“The training we’ve been able to provide to the short line industry has proven to be effective and highly valued by participants,” said John Walsh, SLSI Director of Hazardous Materials Programs. “For example, 97% of respondents to feedback surveys have rated the program positively, and pre- and post-tests show that the program can effectively transfer crucial safety information from instructor to participant.”3

Walsh also noted that during 2020, when travel and access to railroad properties was limited, Hazmat training was made available in new formats, including a Fast Class video series, and Hazmat Minute videos that have been viewed almost 10,000 times. 

Additional Hazmat resources have been developed to meet the needs of short line railroads, including Hazmat Safety Tips designed for review during safety briefings, and the Transportation Emergency Response Plan (TERP), a location-specific training, planning and response tool for emergencies. 

“The Short Line Safety Institute has grown its offerings to address documented small-railroad needs to meet our purpose of continuing to improve safety culture across the industry,” said Murta. “The efforts of the railroads we’ve worked with to date have been tremendous. We look forward to serving our industry, assisting railroads in meeting the challenges and changes required to operate safely as a critical part of our nation’s supply chain.”

1 SHORT LINE SAFETY INSTITUTE: THE MOST ROBUST MODEL FOR ASSESSING SAFETY CULTURE IN THE U.S. RAILROAD INDUSTRY, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, RR 19-16, June 2019.

2 SHORT LINE SAFETY INSTITUTE: STATUS OF SAFETY CULTURE IN THE INDUSTRY, U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Railroad Administration, RR 21-06, April 2021.


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