Internalizing safety

By Richard Tackett

First Transit’s down-up culture means employees care about getting it right

Thomas Harris was most struck by the bus industry’s attention to safety and regulation when he stepped into his role as First Transit and First Services’ vice president, safety and human resources, one year ago.

“I was surprised that the industry is as regulated as it is,” Harris says. “I made the assumption that the aviation industry would be more regulated than over-the road transportation. That’s probably a bias – but you stand a higher chance of harming the public, with the millions of miles that you run per year, with a bus operation.”

Harris joined FirstGroup America, Cincinnati, OH, which provides busing and maintenance services to municipalities, school districts and the general public throughout North America, in May 2010 as a senior attorney. He previously worked for Comair where he handled risk management and compliance.

“The FTA and FMCSA are just as strong and necessary as any of the FAA standards, and First Transit follows those to the letter,” Harris says.

According to Harris, engaging employees is the best practice for improving a company’s safety record. To that end, FirstGroup holds safety-based leadership conferences. This year, executives gathered in London and then in Baltimore a week later. Both sessions, Harris says, were focused on safety goals and the support that frontline leadership will receive from executives.

“Many have fear about following safety protocols at the lower levels because they’re worried about two things,” he says. “Operationally, they’re worried about upsetting a customer if they don’t get their bus out on time. Financially, they may send a bus that’s not appropriate to be out on the road, for fear of some CFO or their regional finance person having something to say about that.”

Harris says they haven’t had these problems at First Transit, but they want to make sure local leadership teams know that they’ll be supported in any decision they make. They’ll never be challenged over operational needs or financial assurance.

“We’re going to make sure they think about safety first and worry later about those other two issues that may come about,” he says. “We haven’t had a problem, but we do want to make sure people aren’t afraid of making those good, strong safety decisions every day.”

In the long run, he says, a bad safety record is disastrous for a company’s bottom line.

“You’ll get hit with lawsuits, you’ll have a bad reputation, you’ll lose contracts,” Harris says. “Safety should be second nature, but you have to continually press it on lower-level locations and leadership.”

Wellness Warriors
Harris says First Transit is pushing a driver wellness initiative this year.

“We took a look at our drivers and recognized that a lot of them have unhealthy lifestyles because of the fact that they’re driving eight hours a day and don’t really have a lot of time to spend on their own personal health,” he says. “We’re promoting better eating and exercising, because I think that will reduce passenger injuries and improve the drivers’ well-being.”

The initiative was first pushed by FirstGroup’s rail operation in the U.K. Harris says they quickly adopted a similar campaign for their North American operations. All First Transit locations have hung up wellness boards which promote both safety and wellness tips.

“The wellness tip might say, ‘Watch your blood pressure,’ and then we’ll add a safety topic along the lines of ‘Also, make sure to keep your cool when you’re on the road.’” Harris says. “It goes hand in hand.”

First Transit recognizes a Wellness Warrior, someone who’s had a great success with their personal wellness, at the end of each month. Harris says the Wellness Warrior space can also recognize someone who’s had a failure in their wellness plan.

“I feel cautionary tales are sometimes just as good as those who’ve done really well, because they can inform other people that you don’t have to be a superhero to be a Wellness Warrior,” he says. “We all fail at times and people can learn from that failure. If you fell off the wagon, for lack of a better phrase, but then you got back on, we want to highlight that.”

Engaging the families
Harris says a First Transit location in Louisville, KY, has added a unique twist to safety training by engaging drivers’ families. The location has hung signs designed by the drivers’ children, reminding staff of crucial safety tips. This practice, Harris says, encourages drivers to internalize safety principles by teaching them at home.

“If you go home and ask kids to do it, you have to explain a topic like ‘Watch for Pedestrians,’” he says. “It’s a good idea because it really gets the drivers involved and engaged in the process. The drivers have taken great pride in the artwork that their children make. It’s one of the best practices that the other groups, including Greyhound, should think about doing.”

Looking forward
Harris says that this has been one of First Transit’s best years in terms of collisions, passenger injuries and employee injuries. He credits the company’s culture and initiatives for reducing those injuries and claims.

“Our campaigns have been good, take lower- and upper-back safety, for example,” he says. “We have a lot of shuttle operations, and we deal with push, pull and twist injuries when people pull luggage off of a bus. We spent time making sure drivers knew to properly lift luggage, put it on the ground, and continue that practice every time they lift a bag. Hopefully it carries over to their home life as well.”

Harris says that his organization’s commitment to safety, from top to bottom, is second to none.

“I’d like to believe that all bus carriers hold safety as highly as First Transit,” he says. “I’ve been in aviation where safety is of paramount importance, but these guys seem to have a deeper focus on safety than any place I’ve been. I can’t say it’s bizarre, but it’s unusual to have that strong sense of passion about safety.”