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Norfolk Southern’s Safety Process

As the first part of the company’s vision, safety is the top priority at Norfolk Southern. The goal is simple: zero incidents and zero injuries.

Norfolk Southern is a leader in workplace safety performance, winning an unprecedented 23 consecutive E. H. Harriman Gold Medal Awards for employee safety (1988-2011). In 2012, the Association of American Railroads ended the awards after 99 years at the urging of members who wanted to focus on collaborating to make all railroads safer rather than treating safety as a competition.

Maintaining the enviable position as the safest railroad in the industry allows NS to offer customers a competitive transportation package while also serving the interests of its employees and shareholders.

In 2012, Norfolk Southern began implementing changes in its safety and operating culture. The company shifted to a behavioral science approach that emphasizes positive reinforcement to recognize safe work behaviors. The goal is to create a more positive work environment that further enhances safety and job performance.

Aubrey Daniels International, a consulting firm that specializes in behavioral science processes to improve business performance, has helped train NS managers in behavioral science techniques and is involved in the expansion of training to the entire NS workforce, focusing on peer-to-peer relationships.

Because safety and service go hand in hand at Norfolk Southern, efforts to improve safety have contributed to improvements in customer service and gains in productivity.

The use of behavioral science is strengthening relationships and building trust among supervisors and unionized craft employees, who represent about 24,000 of the railroad’s approximately 30,000 employees.

NS’ safety efforts are led by some 130 local safety and service committees at terminals, yards, shops, and facilities. These interdepartmental committees are chaired by operations employees in mechanical, transportation, and engineering. Department managers provide support and the resources to carry out safety initiatives. This “bottom-up” approach encourages buy-in, because employees share responsibility for ensuring that our safety processes are successful.

NS systematically monitors “leading indicators” of safety performance. These indicators are processes to ensure a safe working environment. One key leading indicator, for example, is job safety briefings. Operations employees are expected to hold safety briefings at the start of each shift and during the day when appropriate to discuss work assignments, special challenges they may face, such as weather conditions, and relevant safety rules based on work activities planned.

Another key leading indicator is safety “checkups.” Their primary purpose is to give managers and safety committee members an opportunity to recognize and reinforce the behavior of employees who follow safety rules. Through positive reinforcement, NS is promoting safe behavior and discouraging undesired behavior while further improving relations between supervisors and employees.