RWU Campaigns

RWU Campaign Against “Blame-the-Worker” Safety Programs

During the past several years we have seen an explosion of “Blame-the-Worker” safety programs on Class 1 railroads in the U.S. These programs have been fairly commonplace in other industries and many other labor unions have been struggling with them for years.

Technology, restructuring and work force reductions have made big changes, in the last decade, in how railroaders work. Many of these changes come with their own special set of adverse health and safety problems – such as fatigue, increased work load, repetitive strain injuries, stress, workplace violence, fatalities and other work-related injuries and illnesses.

Instead of seriously addressing these injury-causing hazards, most railroads have bought and implemented some sort of behavior-based safety program which attempts to put the blame on the actions of individual workers instead of the hazardous job conditions.

A variety of consultants and companies sell behavioral safety programs to employers throughout the United States and around the world. The leading companies include Dupont (the Dupont STOP program), Behavioral Science Technologies, Aubrey Daniels (SafeR+ program), E. Scott Geller's Safety Performance Solutions (Total Safety Culture program), Topf Organization (SAFOR program) and Liberty Mutual Insurance Company (Liberty's Managing Vital Performance - LMVP program). These programs identify "critical worker behaviors," train "observers" (workers and/or supervisors who observe worker behaviors) and use some form of "critical behavior check-lists" to document when a worker has engaged in a safe behavior or committed an unsafe act.

One of the keys to these programs is defining“culture” of observing employees’ unsafe acts and subsequently modifying their behavior. This is done instead of recognizing the underlying causes of those acts and modifying the worksite to make it safer. This practice makes it much easier to shift responsibility to the workers instead of management’s mandate to provide a safe workplace.

These programs also increase the amount of fear and intimidation on the job. Workers are hesitant to report an injury or illness for fear of being harassed as an unsafe worker or being disciplined for an unsafe act.

Additionally, union workers are recruited (and are put on the company payroll) to act as worksite observers or facilitators for these programs.  This pits union worker against union worker and benefits the carriers by driving a wedge in union solidarity and undermining union efforts to effectively address worksite hazards.

Fortunately, we are not totally defenseless against these programs. On-the-job safety and health issues are mandatory subjects of bargaining under the law. This means that carriers are obligated to bargain with unions over changes in health and safety policies. It means that unions can propose a comprehensive health and safety program – focusing on hazard identification and modification or elimination - as an alternative.

The blame-the-worker approach of behavior-based safety programs is incompatible with, and designed to represent an alternative to, efforts - including those mandated by law - to identify and eliminate or reduce the hazards responsible for the epidemic of worker injuries, illness and death. In a time of major work restructuring and speed up, critics say the focus on individuals at the expense of work environments makes behavior-based safety programs themselves a work hazard that must be eliminated.

If your local is faced with problems caused by a behavior-based safety program, RWU can help with tools to combat the BBS program and create a union-based alternative. CLICK HERE to read about how a RWU member has played a role in the progress his UTU Local and BLET Division have cooperatively made in developing an effective alternative to a BBS program.

Please feel free to use any of the materials below and contact us for more help.

Also be sure to check out CONFINED SPACE.


From her album, "Union Maid" its Anne Feeney, one of the great labor troubadours!


Anne sings: "We Just Come to Work Here, we don't Come to Die!"

Engineer: Truck-Train Collision Raises Fundamental Safety Questions

CLICK HERE to read about it at Labor Notes


HIDDEN TRAGEDY:  Underreporting of Workplace Injuries and Illnesses

Excerpt from page 25:

"Behavioral Safety: Bad for Safety, Bad for Recordkeeping Accuracy
The theoretical underpinning of many safety programs that rely on discipline or rewards is the belief that most workplace accidents are caused by the unsafe behavior of workers.
Rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior, according to this philosophy, can
prevent accidents.
But experts in analyzing accident causation note that, since workers are human and inevitably make errors, the consequence of rewards or punishment is often a failure to report incidents, rather than a reduction of injuries and illnesses. Most have rejected the theory of the “careless worker” and the behavioralist theory..."

TRANSPORTATION RESEARCH CIRCULAR E-C085 Railroad Operational Safety Status and Research Needs

Transportation Research Board -  Vehicle User Characteristics Committee -  Railroad Operational Safety Subcommittee -  January 2006


Blaming an accident on one railroader, often a victim of the accident is a practice from invalidated research and managerial programs. As Howe instructs: “These programs blame workers (the victims of occupational health and safety exposures to hazards) by focusing on worker behavior, rather than problems in the system, such as hazards inherent to the work process.

By focusing on workers’ ‘unsafe acts’ as the causes of injuries and illnesses, companies do little to address the root causes of safety and health risks” (123). Fred Manuele highlights the underlying flaw in the practice of blaming an accident on an individual, in which allegedly, “man-failure is the heart of the problem.” “For years many safety practitioners based their work on Heinrich’s theorems, working very hard to overcome ‘man failure,’ believing with great certainty that 88% of accidents were primarily caused by unsafe acts of employees. How sad that we were so much in error” (124).

Frequently blaming an individual railroader or team of railroaders addresses the symptoms but ignores the underlying causes, upon which scientific, valid accident prevention can be undertaken.

Articles by Professor and Former Railroad Worker Frederick C. Gamst

Blame It on the Pin Puller

Concerns Regarding the Behavioral Focusing of Railroad Accident Reporting on Human Failure/Error

FRA's Regressive Rulemaking in Error Assessment and Consequent Civil Fining

Frederick C. Gamst is now Professor Emeritus. He has a long-term involvement in and contributions to industrial and organizational ethnology within the broader field of the anthropology of work. His specializations comprise the social and industrial relations and social organizations of railroad work. He has 55 years firsthand experience with the railroad industry, as an operating employee, trade union officer, university researcher, and professional consultant--in North America, Australasia, China, Europe, and Africa. From the Society of the Anthropology of Work of the American Anthropological Association, he received its 1995 Conrad Arensberg Award for his development of the anthropology of work, industry, and organizations. He has been at UMB as full professor, dept. chairman, graduate dean and professor emeritus 1975-present.

It’s Time to End Crew Fatigue and Implement PTC

As the recent Metro North passenger train wreck in New York illustrates, fatigue kills. From preliminary reports, it appears that the engineer had nodded off. This of course would not be the first time that a train crew member fell asleep. As we know, it happens all the time. In this case however, the result was catastrophic. Read More...