FirstGroup America stresses world-class safety
By David Hubbard
Mike Murray, president and CEO, FirstGroup America, spoke at the National Safety Council 96th Congress and Expo in October in Orlando, FL, on the role of EHS in an economic downturn, and why companies cannot afford to downgrade safety programs in a recession. He says safety is fundamental to customer service and the value of human life never changes, regardless of current economic conditions.
FirstGroup America provides busing and maintenance services to municipalities, school districts and the general public throughout the United States and Canada. First Student is the largest provider of student transportation, while First Transit and First Vehicle Services is the largest private sector provider of transit management and contracting services. The company also owns and operates Greyhound Bus Lines.
BUSRide spoke with Murray on that and various other topics concerning the establishment and management of safety in the transportation industry.
What do you see as the scope of a successful EHS program?
EHS includes everything from minimizing the environmental impacts of travel to reducing the risk of injury. Because FirstGroup America carries 4.5 million passengers each day and employs 96,000 individuals in North America, all three areas are vitally important at every level throughout all our operations and divisions. It is imperative we conduct our business in a manner consistent with sound environmental, health and safety management practices, and comply with applicable laws and regulations. Every employee becomes responsible for safe operations.
How does a large organization such as FirstGroup position EHS to gain a competitive edge?
EHS is essential to customer satisfaction and retention, and companies that implement a world-class safety culture indeed gain a competitive edge. We do not compromise when it comes to safety, a fact our customers understand and respect. In 2009 the National Safety Council awarded FirstGroup the Green Cross for Safety medal for safety leadership and steadfast commitment to decreasing injury in the workplace.
How does a down economy challenge an EHS program?
As revenues diminish in a down economy over a sustained period of time companies often make more dramatic cuts in their budgets. The reduction of training, extending maintenance intervals and delaying equipment replacement and repairs may save dollars in the near term, but it negatively impacts safety and has serious long-term ramifications. Compromising safety because of cost is a shortsighted decision. We always say the value of human lives does not change during a recession.
What does it take to create a world-class safety culture?
It takes a commitment from each individual throughout the organization, from board members and our executive team to drivers and mechanics, to ensure our focus as an organization on safety each and every day.
Our shareholders also recognize the importance of EHS. Simply, unsafe organizations will not last. A disregard to safety results in claims and lawsuits that take from the bottom line.
In a large organization as diversified as FirstGroup America, what are the steps to establishing and maintaining an exemplary safety program?
Safety consciousness is not specific to the safety department. We hold everyone in the organization accountable. We set policies, goals and standards for safety in all areas and business processes – from vehicle maintenance to administration and facility management – and we track them on a daily, weekly and monthly basis to view our progress or where we need to improve.
Using the best tools and resources in the industry, we run extensive series of checks on each employee for criminal and driving records and work history prior to hiring. Before transporting any passengers, each driver participates in more than 50 hours of classroom and behind the wheel training to ensure a thorough understanding of safe driving practices.
Are there cases in which the company may have a keener sense of safety than customers, where trying to accommodate the customer may impose dangerous conditions?
Our motto is: If you can’t do it safely, then don’t do it. Safety is integral and essential to customer service. We would never compromise in a situation when it came to safety. We believe our customers respect and appreciate quality, safe and reliable transportation.
How do you effectively impose your safety mantra when employee morale is low?
Morale would be lower if we delivered an unsafe work environment. Our employees understand our focus on safety and injury prevention, and understand the difference it can make in their personal lives. For example, our cell phone policy bans the use of mobile devices while on the job. We encourage employees to act out injury prevention behavior in all aspects of their life.
In terms of safety administration how does FirstGroup empower its managers?
Empowerment begins with hiring the right people and then giving them the tools and training they need to effectively perform their jobs and manage their teams with an eye on safety. With clear and consistent policies and procedures in place across all divisions, our line managers and employees understand what we expect and they know the consequences of violating a policy or procedure. We have zero tolerance for violations related to many safety policies.
Some infractions result in immediate dismissal. Others require the employee to participate in extensive re-training before they return to the job. We also encourage our employees to report any safety hazards or issues they observe. We investigate and respond immediately to each report.
How does the safety department work to reach across the entire FirstGroup operation?
A good example is our Injury Prevention Program (IP), highly regarded as effective and innovative. We encourage all our employees to take IP into their own hands and report both safety violations and best practices. By keeping a watchful eye open for safety, we can learn from each other and improve upon our everyday processes.
Can you give examples of what FirstGroup does to manage driver behavior?
At Greyhound for example, drivers must complete a rigorous seven-week defensive driving training course at one of the company’s training schools.
The Smith System Advanced Driver Training provides the critical advanced driving strategies our drivers utilize to prevent collisions and safely transport our passengers. We conduct Smith System training and refreshers throughout the school year to maintain safe driving practices. We provide training on a number of security events and implement procedures to ensure our drivers, attendants and dispatch staff can respond for the safety of our passengers in various situations.
What role does technology play in the FirstGroup safety culture?
We equip all of our buses, First Transit, First Student and Greyhound, with a variety of technological safeguards that work to protect drivers and passengers. Our First Student buses are equipped with an electronic and satellite-based tracking system that provides the location and speed of our buses at any given time. In the event of an emergency, we can pinpoint the exact location immediately and notify schools and parents. Electronic monitoring also alerts us to any maintenance issues or repairs, and allows drivers to inspect buses more efficiently by eliminating some of the paperwork.
We have led innovation with installation of Child Check-mate and Theft-mate technology to protect our staff and to alert drivers if unattended children are left on buses.
Despite everything you do something can still go wrong. People make mistakes, vehicles have mechanical breakdowns and bad weather is unavoidable. Then what?
In the event of an accident or safety incident, as a matter of course we conduct a thorough internal investigation to understand what occurred and what we could have done to prevent its occurrence. We make sure to interview the personnel involved and reconstruct the incident as closely as possible. We use every situation as a learning tool to improve our processes and training procedures.
How does the size of an organization affect the safety culture?
The fundamentals are the same for a company operating a single bus or a fleet of tens of thousands of buses. The value of the life of a single employee or passenger does not change with the size of the operation.