Safety training: Is it ever not worth the cost?

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The revelation that a consultant was rebuffed by the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway in 2004 to provide the sort of training that could have prevented the July disaster in Lac-Megantic underlines the need for HR managers to stress the importance of such safety training to companies like MM&A.

The U.S. railway consultant said he was approached almost 10 years ago to provide the kind of training that could have prevented the July 6 train disaster in Lac-Megantic, Que. that killed an estimated 47 people. Rick Carter, the founder of Railroad Training Services based in Stockton, Calif., initially offered to provide the training to 36 employees for $25,000, later reducing his fee to $17,600.

According to Carter, each offer was rejected by Tom Tancula, Rail World vice-president mechanical, remembering Tancula told him, “We’re not going to pay that much money to train these people.”

MM&A is now facing bankruptcy as it is struggling to pay for the sizable clean-up in the Quebec town and the coming civil suits.

According to Carter, Rail World Inc. had approached him for training that would have included proper airbrake and handbrake safety procedures – which have now become the focus of the investigation into the tragedy.

A part of the training offered by Carter would have included that a train the size of the one involved in the crash should have had handbrakes applied on all five of the locomotives, and 10 to 15 of the railcars to prevent them from rolling away.

Hindsight can make it seem obvious that $20,000 for safety training is a small price to pay, but when companies are operating on small margins or irresponsible managers want to avoid increasing expenses it can be difficult to convince them that the spending is worth it.

Ontario health and safety consultant Christopher Hurley said one of the major challenges consultants face is helping organizations understand the risks and the need to plan.

“You spend a third of the time teaching people what they want and need, and to get them to ask the right questions internally so they truly understand where their opportunities for risk improvement lay,” Hurley, who is president and facilitator of Hurley Training and Consulting Services, said. “Communicating and helping businesses prioritize is part of the job.”

 There are any number of stages where a risk assessment and training program can fall down, from a focus on producing documents but not assigning resources or a business plan, to posting changes on bulletin boards without communicating or training front line staff.

“If you can’t a) communicate effectively and b) prove your communication was completed and effective, you leave opportunity for process failure and severe criticism following an incident like the one in Lac-Mégantic,”  Hurley said.

Rail World chief executive Ed Burkhardt has stated that he wasn’t aware of the negotiations with Mr. Carter’s company, adding that all MM&A employees were adequately trained on the necessary safety procedures, either in-house or by third-party consultants.

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