Friday, February 10, 2012

No award needed for safety

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There is one thing I’ve learned most about railroads whether I’ve worked on the supply side or the publishing side of this industry: safety is a priority. These words rang in my head several times over the past month. First, with the announcement that the Association for American Railroads had decided to retire the E.H. Harriman Safety Award, which has been around since 1913, along with the Harold F. Hammond Safety Award after this year’s presentation, which will take place in May.

Bill Vantuono, editor of our sister publication, Railway Age, had an interesting editorial in the magazine’s January issue where he wrote:

“The Harriman Awards are being put out to pasture, ‘retired,’ according to the AAR. They (and also the Harold F. Hammond safety award, given to individuals) will be replaced by a yet-to-be-determined safety recognition program that will be based on a collaborative approach to safety. No more competition based on FRA reportable injuries per 200,000 man-hours worked. No more winners and runners-up. No more friendly competition to see which is the safest railroad. Instead, we might see something along the lines of an industry summit meeting where safety best-practices are shared.

“Is that a good thing?”

Rail labor claimed the Harriman Award acted as an incentive for not reporting on-duty injuries because managerial bonuses were tied to low reportable injury rates.
Railroading an unforgiving business. There are big, powerful machines that perform big powerful tasks and small mistakes can result in large consequences. Financial motivation may be an element of safety, but not the kind suggested in the above paragraph. Running a safe railroad plays into the efficiency of operations, the productivity of maintenance, which then leads to overall profitability.

Awards or not, safety remains a top concern. Anyone who attended the NRC Annual Conference and Exhibition in San Diego, Calif., at the beginning of January was made aware of this. Each presenter, whether it was from a Class 1, shortline or transit agency all began with the importance of safety, not only from their employees but from contractors and anyone else who steps foot on railroad property.

There are plenty of safety recognitions throughout the industry besides the Harrimans. The American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association has its “Jake” safety awards, along with its President’s Awards. We here at RT&S sponsor the NRC safety awards, which recognizes safety accomplishments among contracting companies and many of the Class 1 railroads give out their own safety awards.

Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor of this magazine, has a silver dollar displayed in her office, tails side  or eagle side up. I’ve joked with her that it’s an emergency stash for chocolate or coffee, but it too is a safety award that Jake Jacobson (the same Jake that the ASLRRA awards are named after) awards to employees. Jacobson bestows this Eagle Eye Award to those who find a potentially dangerous situation out on the tracks of the Copper Basin Railway. Jacobson does this because he says it adds a little fun to work, but I also think those silver dollars act as reminders to their recipients.

Isn’t that what awards are, reminders. Whether you feel a silver dollar in your pocket or see an award on display, don’t you immediately think about why it’s there?
At the end of the day, I don’t believe safety for the railroads means getting to put a plaque up on a wall or giving themselves a pat on the back for winning a competition. The true reward in safety is making sure every one of their employees returns home every night.

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