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On the job at Oakwood

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Carman Bob Prickett
Carman Bob Prickett was recognized for his work efforts

How employees keep the railroad safe every day

broken wheel flange
Pictured is the broken wheel rim that Bob Prickett
discovered on a boxcar on train No. 181

In early January, Bob Prickett, a Norfolk Southern carman at Detroit's Oakwood Terminal, had a spectacularly good day for NS despite frigid cold and snow. While inspecting railcars on outbound No. 181 – a top-priority daily train that moves time-sensitive freight for important NS automotive customers – he spotted a broken wheel on a 90-foot high-cube boxcar filled with auto parts. A section of the wheel rim had broken off.

It was a costly and disruptive derailment waiting to happen. It did not, thanks to Prickett's vigilant efforts. "It could have caused us a lot of problems," said Terry Williams, senior general foreman and Prickett's supervisor. "It was an extraordinary find, and we're glad he did."

Prickett has worked more than 35 years as a carman at the Mechanical Department's Oakwood car shop and plans to retire in July. He now works second shift, mainly conducting mechanical inspections and testing air brakes of outbound railcars but also repairing cars as needed.

On the day he spotted the broken wheel, Prickett was filling in for a vacationing employee on first shift. He also pulled his regular shift, making for a 16-hour day. Around mid-morning, Prickett was inspecting boxcars on the 181. He wore a ski mask and layers of heavy clothing to ward off a wind chill of about 40 below zero. Around six inches of snow covered the ground and continued to fall.

"The wind was blowing, it was snowing, and it was hard to concentrate," Prickett said. "It's harder to walk in those conditions, so you're looking at the ground more because you don't want to fall."

Then he saw the broken wheel. "The snow wasn't quite up to the wheel, and I said, 'Man, this chunk of wheel is missing here,' " Prickett said. "Thank God the broken part was at the bottom closer to the rail and was easier to see. I'm glad I caught that, because I know what could have happened out on line of road at 60 mph."

To recognize Prickett, leaders of the Dearborn Division, including Mike Grace, division superintendent, surprised him and his fellow carmen at a shift safety meeting. Dave Arnovitz, superintendent Detroit Consolidated Terminals, presented Prickett with a plaque and the terminal's "Change the World" award, given to employees whose actions prevent an injury or serious incident. A tag inscribed with Prickett's name was placed on a fiberglass meerkat, an animal terminal employees adopted as their mascot because meerkats rely on each other to survive in the wild.

"We try to recognize behaviors that really make a difference, and that was a pretty serious defect that Bob found," Arnovitz said. "Carmen have very important jobs. When they go home, the cars they inspected are out there moving on the road. They have to be thorough and efficient."

In addition, Prickett received a "handbrake hunter" cap, part of an effort to recognize employees who spot handbrakes set on outbound cars or on cars being shoved in the yard. The broken wheel Prickett spotted could have been damaged by a set handbrake, Arnovitz said.

Arnovitz said he recognized Prickett during the carmen's safety meeting to underscore how the railroad's success depends on all departments working together. A yardmaster, some train and engine employees, and a maintenance-of-way employee also attended. The Mechanical Department employees were "blown away" by Grace's presence, Arnovitz added. "In the past, you very rarely saw a division superintendent talking to car employees," he said.

Grace said such encounters are more common since NS two years ago introduced behavior-based processes to the railroad's operating culture. The approach emphasizes the importance of reinforcing desired work behaviors, such as employees observing safety rules.

"Everybody is getting into R+, positive recognition," Grace said. "I'm really encouraged by the increased communication and cooperation I've seen coming from that."