Promoting a Safe and Accident-Free Workplace

A big part of the safety culture at Northern Plains involves employee participation in the process of managing and promoting an incident and accident-free workplace.

The NP joint management employee Health and Safety Committee (HSC) has played a continued and expanding role in this process since its reorganization in 2015. “The committee has been around for a while,” says Dan Watson, co-chair of the HSC, “but we are now gathering four or five times a year, as opposed to once as we did in the past, and this has allowed for more focus on safety issues affecting our internal operations as well as the entire industry.”

The HSC was further recently merged with the NP “wellness program” led by Cheryl Harlow, in order to better promote comprehensive solutions for the total well-being of all employees. Each NP company or department has a representative at the HSC meetings, and this allows for a wide range of issues to be covered from a variety of perspectives. Injury and accident history, causal factors, rule violations, audits, risk assessments, close calls, and safety communications are key discussion points.

This year as a committee-led initiative, the HSC took ownership of an effort to replace worn mile post signs and whistle boards on the NPR. They also performed several safety blitzes and shop audits to identify any hazards or out of compliance issues so they could be corrected right away. “I have been part of these audits in the past and I have seen what can happen when people are engaged to make the workplace safer. It is our goal for the company to be injury, incident, and violation free,” says Eric Hegstrom, safety coordinator and co-chair of the HSC. NPR wants employees to first and foremost protect themselves from the hazards that railroading can present, and the committee exists to help build a strong safety culture so that every employee can go home safely at the end of the day. We want employees to look out for themselves and others.”

In respect to wellness programs—which have been offered for a number of years, “Cheryl Harlow has been a great asset in this area,” says Watson. “She has worked with organizations like the American Heart Association since 2011—we are now a gold member—and Cheryl is constantly coming up with ways to help us improve the overall well-being of our people.”

“This year we’ve revised our wellness initiative to include AHA’s Life’s Simple 7, which is replacing Fit Friendly,” says Harlow.

This science-based personalized tool will give each employee a heart score and make simple AHA recommendations to improve their health. By using a company code, aggregate data will be collected by the HSC to post a quarterly “Picture of Heart Health” and make program recommendations to help move the company as a whole from moderate health risk to low risk. “All of this assists us in our goal of improving individual and company health,” remarked Harlow, “and should ultimately help us reduce health care premiums.”

Another spin-off that has resulted from the increased activity of the HSC is the Live Injury Free Everyday (LIFE) program led by Eric Hegstrom. This was created as a way to recognize employees who are making major contributions to safety—and to encourage all to get involved in keeping track of our safety performance. “This year we had a great story of one of our employees recognizing the unsafe practices of an employee of another company,” says Watson. “This man was moving in between our cars during loading and unloading—just trying to be helpful— and our employee asked him to stop, explained why, and when the man failed to do so, brought it up to a supervisor. It was exactly the way things should have been handled, and while it may be uncomfortable at times to point out an infraction, it can save your life or the life of your colleague.” We’re happy to recognize these guys, and we’ve incorporated the slogan into hats, safety apparel, and posters to get the word out that we are committed to Living Injury Free Everyday.

Finally, the HSC has come to serve as somewhat of a mediator between management and employees. “Employees can come to us with safety concerns or requests for big ticket items that are safety related, and we can explain why we’re doing it or not doing it,” says Watson, “we can act as the middle man at times—and it works.” Employees who have concerns that they may not feel comfortable bringing to their direct supervisor, can bring them to the HSC to be discussed and reconciled. “We work to get everyone on the same page if someone doesn’t feel listened to,” says Watson, “they can come to us anonymously to deal with whatever issues they might be experiencing.”

I have seen what can happen when people are engaged to make the workplace safer. Our goal for the company is to be injury, incident, and violation free. —Eric Hegstrom

“I view the committee as a go-to for anybody to address any questions or concerns,” adds Hegstrom. “So far employees have been very straight forward with bringing issues to our attention, and usually we’re able to help.”

For further information on the HSC, or if you are interested in participating, please contact Eric Hegstrom at