"Our Path to Zero": How to Change Safety at Your Company

"Our Path to Zero": How to Change Safety at Your Company

This is what the retired EVP of Operations for BNSF Railway says the company is doing to change safety & what you can learn from it.


The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway is one of the world’s largest freight railroad networks. BNSF has over 40,000 employees and owns or operates 32,000 miles of track in North America. The railroad operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Was there a trigger moment that caused you to re-examine safety at BNSF?

About a decade ago, we were focused on behavior-based safety. We were making progress in terms of just reducing the number of reportable incidents. But we were still unfortunately – tragically – still experiencing loss of life and serious life-altering injuries and it just wasn’t acceptable.

Frankly, I attended too many employee funerals. That was the trigger moment. Any loss of life is unacceptable. We needed a change. We knew it could be different. Didn’t know how we were going to do it but we knew we had to do something different.

So, with the help of DEKRA, we went to work on how to change the culture. It wasn’t just about process safety. It was also about changing the leadership style and the safety culture in which those processes were executed.

You started by addressing Rules Compliance. Why?

In many cases following the rules are the difference-makers from someone going home to their family at the end of the work day.

And what we found is we weren’t consistent in how our employees were following the rules and, frankly, how we were assessing exceptions to the rules in terms of discipline. So we focused on a set of critical skills – life-altering, critical skills and rules – and we held people accountable. And then we challenged ourselves around procedural justice insuring that we were treating people equally.

You wanted to make sure you were doing the right things and doing them well?

Yes, and, over time, the organization started shifting to what I’d call a “pull” type of situation where the employees and our labor unions really wanted a more active role in safety. And they started pulling us versus what was, early on, more of a push initiative.

As we made that shift, employee engagement increased. We put in place a program called “Approaching Others” which was, you know, a very simple concept: If you care about somebody, you’d be willing to approach them when you see them putting themselves at risk. If you care about somebody, you’ll also hopefully recognize safe behavior so it’s reinforced in the future.

Simple concept, easy to talk about. The challenge obviously was to implement that effectively. How does a new employee have a conversation with a 30-year employee? Well, you gotta use the right language, approach is very important, the feedback’s gotta be accepted.

What’s your advice to other companies who want to change their safety culture?

It’s going to take time and you’re just not going to push it on your own timeline. So being patient and then really insuring that the organization is ready for each change.

It takes three years to change a climate, 6-7 years to change a culture and I believe that in my heart. In this case you’re talking about people, changing perspectives, mindsets, experiences. It takes a long time.

It’s all about consistent execution year-in and year-out: consistency of the messaging, consistency of the program, reinforcing previous year learnings. And I think through that process, over time, you start building a level of trust in the organization. People see that, “OK, they’re serious about this. This is not the program de jour that we’ve seen in the past.”

Do you think all that time and effort has been worth it?

You know looking back even 10 years it’s a significant change. Safety is a value at BNSF, not merely a priority. Priorities can change over time but a value is something that is deeply held. It’s lasting. It’s enduring. Safety as a value at BNSF means that nothing we do at the railroad is more important than the safety of our employees and people getting home to their families.


This interview originally appeared in the DEKRA Solutions magazine (1/2017). You can view it in its initial form.

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Monday, 13 July 2020