January 19, 2009
Safety Culture: The Essential Foundation
By John O'Grady
APTA Rail Safety Committee
Chief Safety Officer
Toronto Transit Commission
Over the past two years, the term “safety culture” has crept into the transit vocabulary. APTA conferences in Toronto, San Francisco, and San Diego have each featured sessions in which member agencies and the Federal Railroad Administration have emphasized the need to work on our corporate culture. Why the emphasis on such a soft topic?
We have learned from bitter experience that rules, procedures, and directives are meaningless if not followed consistently by everyone, on every shift, in every location. If we are honest, many of us will acknowledge that shortcuts are common. If we need proof, virtually all the track worker fatalities across the industry in recent years have involved procedural violations.
In the 1980s and 1990s, we focused on developing system safety and standard operating procedures for all activities. We now need executives who insist that these systems are implemented and produce positive results. Supervisors have to ensure that the management systems are translated into consistent safe work behavior. And we need to engage the front-line workers in the quest to eliminate exposure to hazards. They know the work better than anyone, but are they asked to contribute?
How would we recognize a positive safety culture if we saw one?
A positive culture starts with leadership who passionately show they care about safety. If we don’t care whether our workers go home to their families unharmed, if this is not the most basic value in the company, then why should workers care about quality, productivity, or service?
We simply cannot foster a sense of mission, shared values, and teamwork without placing the highest value on team members. In practical terms, this means ensuring that pathways of communication are open from track level and shop floor to the C-Suite. Workplace deficiencies must be fixed right away. New equipment has to be designed with safety integral to the specifications. High-quality practical training is a given. Senior leadership has to find a way to measure exposure to risk and make reduction a key performance indicator. Tailpipe measures such as accident rates are not enough.
Managers and supervisors have to walk the talk. We have to know the hazards and be able to show workers that controls are adequate. We have to be in the car house, division, and at track level to ensure that all the controls are in place and listen to the workers to know if the controls actually do work. We need to empower workers to know that we will tolerate, indeed insist upon, service delays in the name of imminent safety risk. We need to reinforce safe behavior, not just discipline unsafe acts.
In a positive safety culture, workers look out for each other and share responsibility for safety. They watch each other’s backs and are not reluctant to point out dangerous behavior. People give and receive feedback on safety openly and will not tolerate unsafe behavior. This includes workers giving corrective feedback to superiors without fear of reprisal. When they encounter unsafe conditions, they fix them. If they can’t fix them, they report the hazard, confident it will be corrected right away by management.
In a positive safety culture, workers are proud of what they do. Why does this matter?
Public transit is entering an unprecedented period of expansion. We need to attract and retain good people, especially as the “baby boom” generation enters its retirement years. Companies with proud workers, in a caring environment with an excellent safety record, will be at a competitive advantage in recruiting young workers.
We are also entering a period of technological advancement. Older manual systems are being converted to automatic train control. Maintenance systems require advanced technological diagnostics for repair. Increased ridership will put an ever-growing premium on reliability. Maintenance workers will also need to be knowledge workers. New technologies will drive the same culture change to favor open feedback and communications, less hierarchy, and more collaboration and teamwork.
To achieve a positive culture, safety cannot be just another box to tick off on a checklist. It must be an integral value shared by all members of the organization. Positive safety culture is the essential foundation to corporate success in 2009 and beyond.