After having worked on a rail system for more than 11 years, Paul Messina, superintendent of rail investigations, MTA New York City Transit (NYCT), found himself in a potentially fatal situation. In the middle of an ice storm, he was working on an F train to Coney Island on a curved portion of elevated track about 30-feet above ground. It was hailing and sleeting with such intensity that the third rail quickly became icy and the train was stuck in between stations, because the third rail shoes rode up on top of the ice. He and the other track workers had to get the train and the passengers to the next station safely.
He slipped on the ice, and almost fell into the street. “I just grabbed the handrail at the edge, then two employees helped me up. I was wearing shoes with cleats on them, but with ice, that’s not going to help,” says Messina.
In order to prevent dangerous situations like this and others, several rail industry leaders are working toward the goal of changing the culture and mindset in rail safety from reactive — and sometimes punitive — to proactive and preventive, providing rail workers with the necessary tools and training to work safely, and significantly reduce, or ideally eliminate, accidents and fatalities. NYCT and Amtrak are just a couple of the transit operators implementing new safety programs based on extensive feedback and research that indicates that many — if not all — accidents can be completely prevented.
Industry mindset changing
When Peter Hall, director of safety, western region for Amtrak Chicago, began working for the rail transit provider in the mid-1990s, they, like many others in the industry, hadn’t yet done much work with behavioral safety and used a more reactive approach to injury prevention. “The culture was based on letting things happen before we figured out why. And, [the rail industry] is not alone in that…it’s easy to measure…how many riders came on the train, how many injuries we had…what’s hard to measure are behaviors that could lead to an injury,” says Hall.
Marc Magliari, media relations manager for Amtrak government affairs and communications, agrees. “Someone gets hurt, there’s an investigation, then they find out what the wrong thing was and teach people not to do it.”
Hall adds that by implementing behavioral safety principles, Amtrak has been able to reverse that trend.
Safety practices re-examined
In a joint project with the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), Hall began work on a behavioral safety program for the Chicago Union Station in 2000. The FRA office of research and development asked Amtrak to be the pilot program for the railroad industry. “Behavioral safety was a new program, and the FRA wanted to try it,” Hall explains. “I jumped at the chance, because it was a unique approach for a railroad.”
Working with behavioral safety technology, the pilot was carried out at the station, judged an ideal location due to its relatively small size and pool of 200 employees with varying degrees of seniority. The Volpe National Transportation System Center was hired to handle statistical analysis. A Steering Committee was appointed; they analyzed all the injuries that had occurred over the past three years and determined how each one occurred and what could be done to prevent similar injuries in the future. They then created a categorized list of all the behaviors, called the Critical Behavior Inventory.
Based on the list, the committee developed a checklist and selected trained observers to review the work of employees volunteering to be observed. Twice daily, the observers would watch their peers, who had already received safety training, record their behavior and discuss it with them afterward during a feedback session. Hall added that the behavior safety training was essential to achieving the performance they wanted.
The observers would point out what they saw the employees doing safely and what they were doing that was at-risk. Common at-risk behaviors included lifting heavy items with the back instead of the legs; workers not watching where they are walking; or not being mindful of “pinch points” when carrying or lifting objects. The observers would ask the employee whether there was a reason for the at-risk behavior. In some cases, the employee would respond that they couldn’t carry out the task safely, because there was a barrier to safe performance.
The observers would file daily reports and list barriers to safe performance that employees encountered, and considered changing how the job was done, or what tools were available.