Sacked for safety's sake

October 21, 2009
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I remember a number of announcements, all separated by as much as a year, all announcing the arrival of “good news,” when he and I were co-workers. The most notable being news of his engagement and subsequent marriage, later followed by the announcement of the expected arrival of his first child. Then came the news of the second child and most recently of the third.

Our years working together paralleled the progression of family growth, from infants to the school-bound days. Stories came and went with the days and weeks and years. So, too, did the day in and day out work routines of track and passenger train maintenance, inspection and follow-up. Training for certifications and re-certifications passed quickly and without much incident.

Our conversations reflected milestones associated with both family and work. His daughters playing dress-up and house, then reveling in their third sibling. Our organization’s safety performance was progressing as well, enjoying improving loss experience and a continued separation of time since the last significant incident.

New hire orientation

Then the day came. With my assistant safety manager and a new hire, we requested permission and received the go-ahead to enter his area. Visiting an “occupancy area,” an area of track that is de-energized, provided with safety devices and otherwise made safe against the electrical and train movement hazards of active track, is a routine part of every new employee’s training and familiarization package. This was to be no different than any other opportunity for a new employee to see that what was offered in the classroom would be manifested, in a practical way, out on the track and guideway. This was to be no different than the previous 100-plus times that I’ve been involved in the process, and yet it was indeed different.

Routine requires attention

A little background is necessary before I go any further with this tale. Our formal procedures for taking any section of track down for maintenance was originally developed by the French transportation organization MATRA, which was responsible for the design and construction of our system. As with the Metro systems in Paris and the high-speed conveyance systems throughout France, our system is separated into multiple power sections that can be shutdown and subsequently “run around,” allowing for flexible maintenance without shutting down completely.

The power down process involves the use of a TOW (Track Outage Worksheet) that identifies all of the considerations necessary for safe shutdown, such as the breaker switches to be turned off, locked out and tagged; the switches to be placed in local control and tagged; and the locations where caution tape (which identifies the work boundaries), trip stops, switch blocks and shorting devices are to be placed. Through the 15-year history of the system we have conducted this same routine of shutdown and “making safe” the area occupied for maintenance nearly 5,000 times.

Having said that, there was much more than surprise when a critical piece of safety equipment was found not to be in place. And even more surprise when the explanation offered was “maybe it fell off,” and a subsequent written statement of “I forgot.” After some discussion, this 13-year veteran employee was terminated.

Severing ties

I don’t expect much future contact with the man whom I considered to be more than a work acquaintance. My dealings with him in the past, in terms of discipline, involved what I think to be a reasonable and professional approach to non-serious but contrary-to-policy situations such as sleeping, smoking and placement of tools/equipment — “If I see it happen again it can’t be kept between you and me.” This was entirely different though. This incident exposed five people to electrical hazards that could have resulted in fatal outcomes.

I am truly sorry that he could not keep his job, yet I am gladdened that his children will not become fatherless because of his oversights here.

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