Rules Infractions: Failures or Opportunities?

When you take the opportunity to train an employee in order to correct an unsafe behavior, you are more likely to engage the employee with the belief that you not only care about compliance but are there for their personal safety. We all want our employees to be safe and go home each night.

As a 42-year railroad veteran, I can recall the rules compliance process. Early in my career, employees with rules violation were given “demerits.” An accumulation of demerits could lead to dismissal. Receiving said demerits and the oral admonishment was often extremely uncomfortable. Through the years the process of demerits evolved into what is known as “efficiency testing.” This was often a pass or fail observation, with little feedback given to the employee. 

As Director of Train Management at a Union Pacific, I had the responsibility of developing a safety plan for my team. As part of the audit portion of rules compliance, we elected to use a failure during a “training observation” as a “training opportunity.” This involved a thorough conversation between the manager and the employee, whether or not it was a successful observation. We felt it was just as important to reward successful outcomes as it is to correct a “training opportunity.”

Our success was driven by regular training and engagement with the employees. Workers may not inherently know that they have to do something a certain way. The appropriate training should be specific to each employee’s duties. Regular refreshers are key to success. The “buy in” of a safety program and its success is often driven by the amount of two-way, open communication present.

What does your railroad’s training and compliance program look like? Are your employees fully engaged in your safety program?

A Simple Way to Motivate Safe Practices

One simple way to motivate employees in through a safety program. As a Director leading a safety program for a Union Pacific, I understood that in order to achieve our safety goals, my employees needed to be motivated. This can be even more challenging after encountering company variables such as workplace changes, downsizing, or adding additional responsibilities and accountabilities.

 In my experience, it was typical to dangle dollars in front of employees to motivate them to reach their performance goals. This might include raises, bonuses and spot awards. After conducting yearly performance reviews with my employees, I would often note that the performance and goal achievement of some of my employees would be stagnant, with little or no change. 

As a leader, I genuinely believed that if you can take a poorly performing employee and get them to excel, then you are doing your job. Managers manage processes. Employees follow leaders. 

 I needed a way to find out how I could successfully motivate my employees. It was simple: Ask them, What motivates you?” during their performance reviews. Instead of the typical monetary incentives, many of them said they were motivated by such factors as:

• Public praise/recognition.
• Work/life balance (time off).
• Additional challenges.
• Opportunity for career advancement.
• Increased decision-making opportunities.

I would not have known this had I not straight out asked them. As a result, we were able to successfully and individually motivate our employees and attain our safety goals.

Do not make the mistake of assuming that you know what motivates each of your individual employees. You might be surprised.

Reducing Workers’ Compensation Premiums

By improving safety through training and an effective workplace safety program, a company can reduce its “experience modifier,” which in turn will reduce Workers’ Compensation premiums. In the U.S. insurance industry, an experience modifier (experience “mod”) is an adjustment of an employer’s premium for Workers’ Compensation coverage based on the losses the insurer has experienced from that employer.

An effective workplace safety program includes three pillars, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Small Business Handbook:

  • Worksite analysis.
  • Hazard prevention and control.
  • Training of workers, supervisors and managers.

Depending on the laws of a particular state, companies can earn a discount or a premium credit for implementing a formal safety plan. Because the state issues the discounts, insurance carriers must offer discounts for meeting state-specific requirements.

Russell York is Director of Safety and Training at RailSafe Training, Inc. A second-generation railroader, he began his career with the Southern Pacific in 1977, starting as a switchman. He then became a yardmaster in El Paso, Tex. In 1992, York was promoted to Corridor Manager, and then to Superintendent of Transportation Services in Denver. After SP’s merger with the Union Pacific, York worked in Omaha as Director of Train Management. He led a successful safety program for a five-state region at the Harriman Dispatching Center. York finished his 42-year career with the railroad in Portland, Ore. While working for UP, he earned an MBA and was an adjunct professor at Bellevue University.

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