NPR and the Short Line Safety Institute

This past summer, Northern Plains Railroad had the privilege of working with the Short Line Safety Institute who visited the property and conducted an assessment of our safety culture.

The concept of the Short Line Safety Institute was created by the joint efforts of the ASLRRA and the Federal Railroad Administration’s Office of Research and Development two years ago to assist smaller railroads in assessing, developing and implementing a strong safety culture. (Safety Culture is defined as “the shared values, actions and behaviors that demonstrate a commitment to safety over competing goals and demands”). The Institute’s work has drawn great interest in the industry, of note being featured in a recent issue of Progressive Railroading magazine.

Assessments are offered free of charge to U.S.-based short line railroads that carry crude oil or other hazardous materials. The results are proving to be of significant value to those handling hazardous materials and seeking to take their safety performance to the next level. “We handle loads of refined products with our industrial switching operations, and store empty cars on the NPR that last contained hazardous cargo, so we qualified for the assessment,” says Dan Watson, Superintendent Contract Services. He and Shawn I. Smith, Vice President, met with representatives of the Institute at this year’s ASLRRA Short Line Annual Convention and decided to take them up on an offer to visit NPR. “In short” remarked Watson, “we saw this as an excellent opportunity to improve safety that we couldn’t pass up.”

Made up of a team of experienced and highly trained rail safety culture assessors, the group spent time on NPR performing interviews and confidential surveys with managers and employees, reviewing the annual Safety Action Plan and other safety and operating documentation, and conducting observations of NPR employees as they went about their duties.

The process started with a two day pre-visit to NPR, followed by a document review and an introduction to the survey. This was followed by a week on-site, where the SLSI team conducted employee interviews and other direct interactions such as observations and reviews. A confidential and anonymous survey was distributed to NPR employees at all levels of the railroad by the University of Connecticut (UCONN). Anonymity is assured by the University, and the assessors only receive aggregate information from the survey. “The Institute distributed over one hundred surveys—resulting in an impressive 75% participation rate. Following the on-site visit, the SLSI team spent the weekend putting a report together,” says Watson. By the following Monday they were ready to sit down with Jesse Chalich, President, and review their findings and discuss some opportunities.

“Their job was to summarize the findings aggregately and formally—good or bad, and offer their frank and honest feedback to management and the health and safety committee,” said Chalich.

“Inviting a third party and openly sharing information naturally opens one up to criticism, however, we wanted to understand their view of our shortcomings, learn from them, and implement the required strategies intended to prevent accidents and injuries in the future.”

“Some of the specific findings brought forward included an observation that there was some inconsistency amongst our management in respect to safety importance vs. day-to-day work priorities,” remarked Smith. “It’s a bit cliché but it rings very true that we all understand that “Being Safe is Being Productive” and further that no job is ever so important that it cannot be done safely.”

In respect to workplace population, NPR now has, like many railroads, a relatively young workforce. Eighty percent of employees have less than 5 years’ experience. This is positive as many younger employees also have young families, and know the value of looking out for each other—complying with rules and working injury free. However, with a younger workforce, mentoring and coaching by more-experienced employees and managers becomes even more important because then they will learn the territory, trade knowledge and experienced skill set to do their jobs confidently and safely.

Improving communication overall—whether it be manager to employee or peer-to-peer was a theme brought forward throughout the assessment. Effective communication remains a cornerstone of any successful safety culture. “While every company, especially in dealing with remote locations, faces communications challenges—we will be working on ways to reinforce our safety vision and improve safety-related communication at the ground level —across all of our companies,” asserted Chalich.

“The assessment opened our eyes to what we were missing—but at the same time reinforced our successful efforts,” said Watson.

Added Chalich, “Overall, we were pleased with the results—in fact, the Institute reported some very positive things relative to NPR’s Safety Culture. To be recognized as such by this group of highly experienced folks is a credit to each and every one of our Northern Plains railroaders, and we should be very proud of this.” Specifically, the Institute was impressed with the annual Safety Action Plan, the continuous improvement of our joint Health and Safety Committee, a willingness to share safety statistics and root cause information with employees and stakeholders, and our Railroader magazine. “We will welcome opportunities to work with the Short Line Safety Institute in the future,” said Chalich.

NPR would like to acknowledge in particular the leadership efforts of Ryan Riskey and Eric Hegstrom, together with each and every employee who took part in the Short Line Safety Institute Safety Culture Assessment. Without your honest and direct participation, the assessment would not have yielded the results we achieved. Your objective feedback has and will continue to help us improve our safety performance across the Northern Plains Rail Companies. Thank You All!