Seven steps to safety

Great safety is no accident. It takes seven steps to really improve safety performance in your operation.

By Paul Comfort

Define safety performance

Before you embark on your journey to improve your agency system’s safety, be sure you know what to measure. Like a wise man once said, “Be careful not to climb the ladder of success only to find out at the end of your life that it was leaning against the wrong wall.”

While working at major city transit system I noticed that the AFR for our paratransit service was too high and our benchmark was 2.0 preventable accidents per 100,000 miles (a good industry P-AFR average) but we were sometimes over 4 P-AFR. When I looked into comparing our rates with other cities, I noticed that theirs were often a lot lower. However, when I looked at how they defined an accident versus our definition, I quickly realized why they were “outperforming” us. Their definition of an accident was much different than ours. Our agency was counting curb strikes/bumps and the like as reportable “accidents” instead of incidents like most of the rest of our peers.

As I surveyed the industry, I noticed that many used a version of the National Safety Council definition of an accident. It seemed to include all that was needed – “An accident is an undesired event that results in personal injury or property damage,” and, an “incident is an unplanned, undesired event that adversely affects completion of a task”. By adopting this nationally accepted definition of accident, and driving performance according to it, our accident rate dropped to below 2.0 P-AFR and stayed there for the next two years. Curb strikes and other minor incidents that caused no property damage or injury were still tracked and addressed but damage/injury causing incidents became the focus of our efforts to improve safety- and it worked.


Track all safety data 

In order to address behavior-causing accidents you need to track safety related incidents relentlessly. This means mandatory reporting of all incidents by drivers or employees that meet certain criteria. You must require this clearly in writing and have every employee sign a document stating they understand these must be reported (and failure to do so is just cause for job discipline).

Accidents should be reported immediately and investigated. The data from the accident should be entered into tracking software and accident cause and effect categorized.


Trend safety data

To really drive down accidents you need to understand the trends of your employees. Take the data you gathered in Step 2 and aggregate it into spreadsheet form, tracking accident categories over the past year, quarter and month. Look for trends.

This type of trend analysis can assist you as you work to improve your AFR. You need to understand what the top categories of accidents are and focus your efforts on reducing them.

Do not make mountains out of molehills. If you have one or two high profile accidents it can often disorient you and cause you to spend most of your time on “one – offs,” instead of real change for your whole driver force that can improve your overall safety record.


Perform a root cause analysis 

Now that you know the trends and where most of your accidents are occurring, do a deep dive and figure out what’s causing them. It’s not hard. In D.C., the trends showed our paratransit vehicles getting a lot of mirror strikes, often when the driver was at the door of the passenger. The root cause analysis showed that because our vans often had to park on the street in front of a passenger’s house, sometimes drivers behind them would swerve around the van and hit their side mirrors, or tight traffic and street parking caused opposing vehicles to hit our side view mirrors.

We also noticed operators were too often driving under overhangs at fast food restaurants, medical centers etc… and hitting the top of their van roofs. A root cause analysis showed that drivers often wanted to get their lunch fast at a drive-thru but didn’t always remember that their van had a high clearance of 11 feet. So they would hit the overhang at the drive-thru of the restaurant. Or when they were pulling up to a hospital or medical center they would drive under the overhang not noticing the clearance to pick up a passenger and hit their roof.


Develop a strategy

After analyzing and determining the root cause of your highest trending accidents, you need to develop a strategy to attack their root causes. This often involves a discussion with drivers, road supervisors, safety leaders and senior management. These discussions can take place at your monthly safety meetings where you review your safety trends, or in regular management meetings.

In our example of mirror strikes by surrounding traffic a simple fix was found. If we fold in the mirrors when leaving the vehicle in an on street parking situation it should reduce mirror strikes. And these types of accidents are often considered “non-preventable” because the driver isn’t in the vehicle, but as you can see – they are preventable with the right approach. Even if considered non- preventable they still put a vehicle out of service and require costly repairs.

For reducing hitting overhangs our strategy was two pronged – remind drivers of their 11-foot roof clearance and do not allow them to use fast food drive-thrus. Often drivers must go under overhangs at hospitals etc… to provide true curb to curb service as required under ADA. So we couldn’t simply prohibit them all together but we needed to have them be more mindful of their van roof clearance.


Implement a campaign

Have you ever heard that “Safety Never Sleeps”? That was our campaign name in D.C. implementing numerous safety strategies including the van clearance/ overhang issue. It was a team effort that involved everyone in management speaking to all of our thousand plus drivers during each shift pull out and pull in for several months. Early, dark, cold mornings and late nights were required. Every driver, every shift, every day. It wasn’t always fun but it got the job done.

Our maintenance teams put together PVC pipe structures for the vans to drive through each morning on the way out of the yard that had a tennis ball attached to a string, that would hit their windshield to remind them they might hit something driving through an overhang. On the PVC structure and at the gates we had signs that said “Your van has an 11-foot Clearance.” Inside each van we put a sticker overhead that said “This van has 11-foot Clearance.” We stood outside at pullouts dressed as “Superheroes of Safety” reminding drivers of their clearance. We took pictures of all the buildings with overhang structures that drivers had hit in the past year and put that collage of photos on posters in each drivers lounge. We called it “The Overhangs of Washington,” and it served as a reminder not drive under them. We issued mandatory safety guidance that drivers were not allowed to use drive- thrus at restaurants etc… And we did it repeatedly.

The results? – no more overhang hits. We nearly eliminated this major safety issue and dramatically reduced accident related costs and lost time.

The mirror strikes were handled similarly and drivers were repeatedly reminded by their dispatchers to pull in their mirror when parked on the street. These reminders were stated when staff was given their equipment and manifests as they began their shift, and it was also written on their manifests. Gate keepers also reminded them when they pulled out. Road Supervisors handed out written campaign reminders in their regular safety/credentials checks on the road.

The results? Drivers pulled in their mirrors and we basically eliminated this costly “non-preventable” accident type. It was a no-cost fix that saved thousands.

Campaigns are needed to really implement lasting change. You cannot just issue a memo to enact behavior change in drivers or employees. I believe you need to make your case, similar to a political campaign. Have fun with it when you can and reward outstanding performance.


Make it policy

In each of these cases after we defined the safety goal, tracked the safety data, performed a root cause analysis, developed a strategy and implemented a campaign – we then made it a policy with consequences. Most changes were added to our safety policies that resulted in safety points if there was non-compliance. Many of these policies were not always welcomed by the unions but all of them stuck and are now enforced. Safety is #1 in transit and in most industries. If we aren’t safe we can’t do our job. The way to keep up good safety results is to institutionalize the strategy that caused it. That’s the main role of policy – to implement good procedures so we can reproduce great results.

Remember the Seven Steps to Safety and enjoy improved safety at your system.


Paul Comfort serves as administrator and chief executive officer at Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), Baltimore, MD.

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