Thinking About Complacency

WMATA's Richard Sarles believes the greatest threat comes from complacency, something I've also heard from SafeStart founder Larry Wilson and others.

Something Richards Sarles, the general manager/CEO of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, said in Safety + Health's "2013 CEOs Who 'Get It'" feature struck home for me: "There is no question that the biggest obstacle is complacency." Raise your hand if you agree.

Three years ago, holding up anyone from WMATA, known locally as Metro, as a safety paragon was laughable. A succession of train collisions, derailments, and track worker and passenger fatalities were so alarming that the Federal Transit Authority issued a blistering audit of its safety culture and members of Congress threatened to intervene directly in its operations. Sarles went to Capitol Hill trying to convince skeptics that his plan to improve the culture would work.

The plan appears to have worked pretty well. But Sarles believes the greatest threat comes from complacency, something I've also heard from SafeStart founder Larry Wilson and others. It came up again Feb. 5 during an OSHA stakeholder meeting at the University of Texas at Arlington about preventing vehicle backover injuries and fatalities. The stakeholder participants included representatives from construction, insurance, the fire service, recycling, truck manufacturing, and transportation services companies, along with Corey Heniser, vice president of sales at Brigade Electronics, which provides in-vehicle cameras and other safety technologies, and Dave Heidorn, government affairs director for the American Society of Safety Engineers. They agreed backovers are a significant, persistent challenge.

"The biggest thing we see in backovers is the employee on the ground not being attentive to what's going on. It's hard to stay attentive when you're a spotter working behind these trucks ten hours a day," said Dean Bernal, vice president of safety and risk management for J.D. Abrams, a highway construction contractor based in Austin, Texas.

These experts said they’re trying to prevent backovers by using cameras and sensors, pedestrian recognition devices, policies, certified spotters, spotters working in pairs rather than alone, training programs, and even a companywide ban on cell phone use. "My point is, you've just got to be creative," said Odean Slaton. "There's not just one fix for all of this."

According to OSHA's announcement of the vehicle backover meetings, one OSHA database identified 358 fatal backovers from 2005 to 2010, with 142 of these occurring in the construction industry.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

About the Author

Jerry Laws is Editor of Occupational Health & Safety magazine, which is owned by 1105 Media Inc.

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