Erie Railroad - Safety First


Railroads from day one have been dangerous places to work. From the earliest days it became obvious that basic operating rules that every employee had knowledge of would be necessary to safely operate trains. The Erie was perhaps the earliest US railroad to institute a set of safety rules for engineers, put in place in 1856 by General Superintendent D.C. McCallum of Susquehanna. Engineers were admonished to "Run safely first and fast afterward."

But safety rules are only effective when men observe them consistently. It became obvious to some in the industry that more was needed to inculcate a safety mentality in every railroader. This led to a movement known as "Safety First." Safety First began on the Chicago & North Western Railroad in 1910, launched by General Claim Agent Ralph C. Richards while working in Iowa. Building on the earlier work of safety crusader Lorenzo Coffin, Richards had begun collecting voluminous data on employee injuries and concluded that most injuries were not caused by equipment failure or derailment, but by worker carelessness. By making employees more aware of the dangers they faced each day and of the avoidability of most injuries, Richards believed deaths and injuries could be greatly reduced. The movement he launched became known as "Safety First."

The Safety First movement was initially resisted by railroads, but the logic of the plan eventually won out. Labor unions also lined up behind the movement. On the Erie, the first safety committee was organized in 1910, not long after the movement started. On July 26, 1910 in Huntington, IN, another committee formed to investigate accidents. First members of this committee included J.H. Klein (Kline), Marion Division Trainmaster; Bert Myers, Road Foreman of Engines; D.C. Colclesser, Road Foreman of Engines; John J. Heavey, Conductor; and F.H. Lee, Engineer. A general Safety First committee also began about that time.

Safety Supervisor was a new job position, branching off from the "safety appliance inspector" positions instituted after the arrival of safety couplers and air brakes mandated by the federal Safety Appliance Act of 1893. John Heavey, active with the safety movement from its beginnings, himself became the victim of crippling injuries in a 1916 wreck. Four years later he was appointed Safety Supervisor for the Erie system, a position in which he served until his retirement on July 13, 1938.

An early look at the Erie's safety record from 1919:

As the employees began to "buy in" to safety first, the movement began to show results. The safety message was reinforced with local safety committees, slogan contests, poetry and posters. A chief backer of posters and other safety training was the American Railway Association, which formed a safety section in 1921. The section set a goal of reducing accidents by 35% by 1930, a goal that the Erie managed to achieve by 1927. However, safety was an extremely fluid commodity: by 1930, the Erie with 1,098 reportable injuries ranked a terrible 14th among a comparable group of 16 Class 1 railroads in terms of safety. This fact generated renewed efforts to raise accident awareness among the rank-and-file. The World Wars also brought a different focus on safety, that it was a patriotic response to the sacrifices others were called to make on foreign soil.

From December, 1939:

From July, 1951

Crossing Safety
As more and more automobiles began appearing on the scene, the safety movement turned outward to warn motorists of the dangers that lurked at every railroad crossing. Accidents between locomotives and automobiles, trucks and even horse-drawn wagons frequently resulted in motorist fatalities, but the vehicular wreckage could also get caught under the engines or cars, causing derailments. On some roads, old time engineers "marked off" on weekends, not just for the time off, but also because the odds of grade crossing accidents increased with the number of recreational drivers on the road. State laws were passed requiring drivers to stop at crossings and warning signals began appearing at crossings, but it was still up to the driver to heed them. Erie Marion Division engineer John Wonderly spoke eloquently about the need for such measures at a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers meeting in 1914. Wonderly knew first-hand the need for crossing safety, as the previous year his locomotive struck a horse and wagon at a North Judson, IN crossing, killing a man and his two children. Crossing safety continues to be an important issue today. For more information, please visit the Operation Lifesaver website.

Children's Programs
Keeping children off of equipment and rights-of-way was a daunting task, given the natural appeal railroads had to children. The Safety First movement soon spread to schools, carrying the message that trespass could lead to maiming injury or death. Herman A. Daake, Erie Telephone and Telegraph Maintainer (and a talented illustrator) who spent most of his career in Rochester, IN, designed a medallion for distribution to children based on his Knob Hill Railroad cartoon that appeared in the Erie Magazine in 1926 and 1927. The "Three Wise Children" knew enough to Stop, Look and Listen. In 1929, the American Legion stepped up to help fund materials for use by the Erie in school safety programs. The Erie recognized Daake's efforts by making him Supervisor of Safety for the entire system on Feb. 1, 1939. Daake wrote in 1940:

"In 1925, realizing that more should be done to create caution in the minds of school children, I happened to make use of the old slogan, Stop, Look and Listen, but soon discovered that the children of the schools, like their parents, did not wish to stop at a crossing when it was clear of danger. This resulted in a new slogan, "Stop to Think, Look to See, Listen to Hear for Safety." This was received with such interest by the little folk of the school I visited that they started to symbolize the new slogan with their hands and as they did so, they repeated the corresponding words. Ultimately, this became a "safety exercise" which has helped to make the little folk in thousands of schools more safety minded. Later in 1938, I used the new slogan with three youthful figures in my design of a safety plaque, as may be noted from the illustration.

Medallion image courtesy of the Berne Public Library

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