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Incident Prevention Magazine

Neil Dempster, CSP, MBA, Ph.D.

Understanding Your Safety DNA

Understanding Your Safety DNA

Last summer my extended family planned and hosted a long-overdue family reunion. This one was particularly special because my Uncle Roy, who is now in his 80s, was there, and it was the first time in many years that I had the opportunity to see and spend time with him. Prior to his retirement, Uncle Roy was a railroad engineer in charge of and responsible for driving a freight train engine. From a safety perspective, I should explain a few details about trains before I continue. First, a typical freight train can be 120 to 140 cars or approximately one-and-one-half miles in length. Second, if a train is traveling at a moderate speed of 55 mph, it will take more than one mile – or 18 football fields – before that train comes to a stop. And finally, a train can’t swerve to avoid an object in its path. The aforementioned facts should give you a clue as to where we are heading with this article.

After getting reacquainted with Uncle Roy at the reunion, I asked him to tell me about his days as a train engineer. His face lit up at the question, and he proceeded to tell me about his love for the railroad. Uncle Roy probably could have gone on for hours, but at a certain point – and I’m not entirely sure why I did this, except that I have spent quite a bit of time focused on safety efforts in diverse organizations – I asked him if he’d ever hit anything while driving a train. Uncle Roy’s demeanor changed as he described the multitude of times his train had hit objects on the tracks, including animals, chairs, coolers, camping equipment and even cars. In one instance, the driver of a car was clearly trying to get across the tracks as the train approached, even though the gates were down and the lights were flashing. Unfortunately, the driver was not successful in his attempt and another unnecessary fatality occurred that night.

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