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Safety and service committees play key role at NS shops

September 2016

Members of Shaffers Crossing Safety and Service Committee show off the award the shop earned for achieving 1 million employee-hours of injury-free service for the second time. The award, machined out of aluminum, was crafted by machinists at Roanoke Locomotive Shop. From left are Elmon Welch, machinist; Shannon Hodges, machinist and committee chair; Juan Maldonado, electrician; Dawn Brimer, laborer; Billy Harper, electrician; Rick Peggins, machinist; and Mark Shampine, machinist.

Double distinction: NS employees at Roanoke shops lead the way in safety

When it comes to workplace safety, employees at Norfolk Southern’s two locomotive shops in Roanoke prove the old saying that records are meant to be broken.

“What I see is a personal sense of urgency by each employee to protect themselves and protect each other in eliminating risk.”

- Jake Bilthuis, shop manager, Shaffers Crossing Locomotive Shop

In a repeat performance for both shops, employees at Shaffers Crossing and Roanoke locomotive shops recently achieved 1 million employee-hours of service without a reportable injury.

Shop managers and craft employees who lead the shops' safety and service committees said a strong culture of safety drives their performance. Employees look out for each other, continually reinforce safe work behaviors, and believe that injuries can be prevented, they said.

“Accomplishments like this are possible only when each person genuinely cares about each other’s safety and makes it a priority every day,” said Jake Bilthuis, shop manager at Shaffers Crossing. “What I see is a personal sense of urgency by each employee to protect themselves and protect each other in eliminating risk.”

“I think the biggest thing is that everybody has a sense of accountability for their own well-being and for the employee standing next to them on the job,” said Ryan Stege, shop manager at Roanoke. “As management, we try to reinforce those actions and behaviors when we see them to really encourage our people to think of it that way.”

“The biggest thing is that everybody has a sense of accountability for their own well-being and for the employee standing next to them on the job.”

- Ryan Stege, shop manager, Roanoke Locomotive Shop

According to Mechanical Department records, only one other work group since the late 1990s has achieved 1 million employee-hours of injury-free service more than once – the Virginia Division mechanical group, now part of the Pocahontas Division.

Keeping a fresh focus on safety

Shaffers Crossing, with about 300 employees, is NS’ second largest running repair locomotive shop. In addition to repair work, the shop currently is heavily involved in modifying locomotives to add Positive Train Control and LEADER control modules.

Employees at Shaffers first achieved 1 million hours of injury-free service in 2008. On Aug. 30, they reached the milestone a second time without any reportable incidents or injuries – an exceptional “Double Zero” performance. The shop’s employees worked three shifts injury- and incident-free over 574 days to hit the 1-million mark. Employees in the shop’s storehouse work group are nearing 15 years without a reportable injury.

Machinist Shannon Hodges, chair of Shaffers Crossing’s safety and service committee and a 19-year shop veteran, said committee members continuously strive for fresh approaches to safety. The committee earlier this year started using a database system to track issues and concerns raised by employees, sharing the information daily during start-of-shift safety meetings. Most items are minor building or equipment maintenance issues and are handled promptly, he said.

“Now, all of this is on a database that everybody can see and be aware of,” Hodges said. “It’s a way to keep employees engaged. Who’s going to know more about these things than the ones who work with them every day?”

In an initiative launched in mid-2015, the committee began “vacation contacts.” Committee members hand out safety cards to employees about five days before scheduled vacations, reminding them to stay focused on work. When they return from vacation, employees get a welcome-back visit from a committee member and can turn in the safety card for a chance to win a monthly safety prize awarded by the committee.

“That’s been a pretty big thing,” Hodges said.

Bilthuis said shop employees have doubled down on efforts to identify potential work risks. During job tasks, employees use the “pause, process, and proceed” safety tool NS introduced last year to “eliminate even the smaller risks involved in everyday tasks.”  

Safety check-ups play a key role at Roanoke

Roanoke Locomotive Shop specializes in GE locomotives, handling most of NS’ GE engine overhauls. The shop, along with Juniata Locomotive Shop, plays a big role in the company’s rebuild program, including the DC-to-AC locomotive conversion project to upgrade NS’ fleet of GE Dash 9 units to AC propulsion.

Roanoke shop employees reached their first 1 million hours of injury-free service in 2011. They extended that streak into 2013 to become only the second mechanical work group to accomplish 2 million consecutive employee-hours of injury-free work. A workplace mishap in January 2014 interrupted a safety streak of more than six years without a reportable injury. The shop’s approximately 235 employees reached their latest 1-million milestone Aug. 1, working three shifts over 756 days.

“There’s no magic potion or elixir here,” said Kevin Fletcher, boilermaker, who chairs the Roanoke safety and service committee. “We just have employees on the shop floor who are very committed to coming in and working safely and going home safe every day, and management is a big part of that. We work hand in hand.”

In a new initiative, members of the Roanoke safety and service committee are accompanied by one or two supervisors on regular shop safety check-ups. They walk the shop floor, observe work, and talk to employees about any safety concerns. They recognize employees on the spot who demonstrate safe work behavior.

“It’s a good opportunity to see committee people and supervision out together doing these check-ups,” Fletcher said. “It’s all about communicating with the people on the floor, and when they see you care, that helps a lot, too.”

Stege said it’s important for craft employees to be involved in and understand the purpose of safety check-ups.

“These check-ups are not about coming down on somebody for doing something wrong,” Stege said. “It’s about reinforcing what’s already being done right and helping employees find better ways to do things. I’m a big believer in craft employees doing check-ups, because there’s nobody who knows the work better and knows what a shortcut can do in a certain job to get somebody in trouble. They’re a fresh set of eyes for us.”

Pipefitters James Day, left, and Chris Bowen of Roanoke Locomotive Shop are involved in converting a GE Dash 9 unit from DC to AC propulsion.
Pictured above are before and after photos of the first GE Dash 9 unit that craft workers at Roanoke Locomotive Shop converted from DC to AC propulsion. The former No. 8789 DC unit became the No. 4002 AC unit, painted at Juniata Locomotive Shop.