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Jon McDonald, PE
18 Jun 2015
As rail accidents continue to make the news, commentators speculate about what caused a particular event and how it could have been avoided. But by focusing on a singular event (or a singular cause) we may be headed in the wrong direction.
While the cause of a specific accident is important to both the industry and those affected, when it comes to future accident prevention, we must take a broader look. To understand, let me take you back to 1931, when a man by the name of HW Heinrich published a book titled “Industrial Accident Prevention.” His studies showed that for every accident that caused a major injury, there were 29 that caused minor injuries, and 300 near misses (the classic safety pyramid). Several others have conducted similar studies with similar results, including a 2003 ConocoPhillips Marine study that showed for every fatality there were at least 300,000 at-risk behaviors.
With this model, we can see that in order to prevent major accidents, we must focus on preventing near misses and changing at-risk behaviors. Every incident matters—including the ones that don’t make the news. In essence, we need to build a culture focused on safety, where safe behaviors as well as safe designs are the norm. The rail industry on the whole, like the airline industry, is safety oriented and generally achieves accident rates hundreds of times lower than automobiles. But with present-day pressures on transit agencies to operate under tighter budgets and increased performance expectations (adopting new, complex technologies, replacing crumbling assets, and developing a new work force as the baby boomer generation retires), maintaining this culture of safety can be challenging.
With this in mind, I believe a focus on the following three points would help the industry move forward and prevent not only the major catastrophes, but address many of the pieces that are putting the entire system at risk:
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