$afety culture?

Written by Doug Riddell

I read with interest Railway Age’s most recent reporting of the failure of Amtrak’s safety culture. From a retired employee’s perspective, let’s admit that the “S” in safety is a dollar sign. Railroads institutionally (not just Amtrak) preach safety but practice inconsistency when it comes to implementation.

The late Stan Bagley, a highly respected Amtrak executive, and personal friend during my career there, once responded to my query about our division’s exorbitant level of safety promotion funding. His answer was that for what was paid out in FELA settlements alone, he could afford to buy each employee a new car. As an industry, on the corporate level, we make a blanket commitment to safety. Locally, we distribute hats and jackets, pay for barbecues and banquets, and paper bulletin boards with accolades for jobs well done. We lavish all manner of rewards on our employees to convince them that the railroad’s chief concern is safety. In doing so, we attempt to turn skepticism into belief.

Yet when employees walk out of the yard office onto the property, we negate all of the enthusiasm and goodwill we’ve engendered, by encouraging (and in some cases demanding) that workers perform their duties in whatever manner is necessary to get the job done—to get the train out of the yard and over the road—whether it is safe or not. After all, the morning operational call is an obsession with yard dwell and train delay figures. If employees balk at questionable instructions, it’s made explicitly clear that they’re not “team players.”

Railroads roll the dice daily. They’re no less compulsive gamblers than folks who bet their paychecks at the dog tracks. Most times they win, but when something goes wrong, they appear totally dumbfounded as to how such a thing could have happened, given the number of applicable rules that were violated and the emphasis that supervision places on compliance.

If the employer itself is seen to be disingenuous about the role safety plays in its operation, what is the employee to believe? Safe practice only becomes the norm with consistency, and you can’t achieve consistency when you talk out of both sides of your mouth. Arthritis occasionally reminds me of the time 50 years ago, as a young baseball catcher, that I called for my pitcher to throw a curve, and instead, got a fastball, breaking my finger in two places. Mixed signals have consequences in sports or in life. If you act with consistency, you will be rewarded with trust. What message is your railroad transmitting to your employees?

Railroaders aren’t bad people. Most wear those safety award hats and jackets with genuine pride—on and off the job. Employees don’t begin their day plotting to violate rules, damage equipment, disrupt operations or hurt anyone. They receive good benefits and a decent salary as an incentive to work safely and efficiently. Consistently given proper instruction and reinforced with commensurate guidance, most will do just about anything you wish. As I told one new superintendent his first day on the job when we walked out to board my train, your employees can be your most valuable asset, or your most costly liability. The choice is yours.