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Transit M/w:

Placing safety first by Mischa Wanek-Libman, editor

Richard Sarles, WMATA general manager, describes how the D.C.area transit agency transitioned from a “hunkered and bunkered” safety mentality to an open, safetyfirst culture. A Red Line train departs the New York Avenue Metrorail station. Photo by Larry Levine.


or those in the industry who attended the fall 2012 conferences, the subject of safety was touched on several times. One transit agency, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and one incident, the June 22, 2009, Fort Totten Metrorail Station Accident, were used as examples of what occurs when a safety program becomes inefficient. In the three and a half years since the Fort Totten accident, WMATA has refocused, retooled and revitalized its way of integrating safety into the day-to-day operations of its field employees and management. “Safety-first” isn’t just a mantra at WMATA. It has become ingrained in the way the agency does business. Richard Sarles, general manager at WMATA, took the time to tell RT&S how this transition was made and how the transit agency continues to work toward keeping its safety-first culture burgeoning. Sarles arrived at WMATA in March 2010, nearly a year after the Fort Totten accident and found what he called a “hunkered and bunkered” organization. “People didn’t talk to each other,” said Sarles, “Maybe they were loyal to each other in a work group, but there was not a lot of caring about or attention to safety outside your

work group.” WMATA began to look at safety recommendations it had collected from the National Transportation Safety Board, the Federal Transit Administration and from a report the WMATA Board of Directors had commissioned from industry experts. “We embraced all these recommendations and said we’re going to deal with this and put in place a safety culture and that’s going to take years to put in place, it doesn’t happen overnight,” said Sarles. First, was re-establishing, strengthening and expanding the expertise of the safety department, which Sarles says had been marginalized over the years, moved around and its numbers reduced. WMATA also conducted an anonymous employee survey in order to check the pulse of what its employees were thinking. Sarles said the responses to the survey were frank and identified issues the employees felt hindered their safety. “Some of these issues had been identified by the experts who were outside looking in at us, but there was one thing in particular that came to my attention and that was a lot of concern about retaliation and not retaliation from management but from their peers when reporting,” said Sarles. Railway Track & Structures

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