Interview – “Our Path to Zero”

Greg Fox, retired EVP of Operations for BNSF Railway says the company is doing the following to revolutionize safety, and what you can learn from it.


Greg Fox: “Nothing that we do on the railroad is more important than people getting home to their families”

GREG FOX has been with the railroad for over 30 years. He retired as the Executive Vice President of Operations for BNSF Railroad in September 2016. Greg’s team was responsible for the safety and engagement of all employees. They implemented a “Safety Cultural Transformation Initiative” that achieved the company’s best-ever employee safety and a reduction in reportable employee injuries of over 60%

Interview by Bob Wiltfong

Was there a trigger moment that led you to re-examine safety at BNSF?

Greg Fox: About a decade ago, we were focused on behavior-based safety. We were making progress in terms of just reducing the number of reportable incidents. But we were unfortunately – tragically – still experiencing loss of life and serious life-altering injuries and it just wasn’t acceptable. Frankly, I attended too many employee funerals. That was the trigger moment. Any loss of life is unacceptable. We needed a change. We knew it could be different. We didn’t know how we were going to do it but we knew we had to do something different. So, with the help of DEKRA, we went to work on how to change the culture. It wasn’t just about process safety; it was also about changing the leadership style and the safety culture in which those processes were executed.

You started by addressing rules compliance. Why?

Fox: In many cases, simply following the rules made the difference between someone going home to their family at the end of the day or not. What we found is that we weren’t consistent in how our employees were following the rules and, frankly, how we were assessing exceptions to the rules in terms of discipline. So we focused on a set of critical skills – life-altering, critical skills and rules – and we held people accountable. And then we challenged ourselves around procedural justice ensuring that we were treating people equally.

You wanted to make sure you were doing the right things and doing them well?

Fox: Yes, and over time, the organization started shifting to what I’d call a “pull” type of situation where the employees and our labor unions really wanted a more active role in safety. And they started pulling us versus what was, early on, more of a push initiative. As we made that shift, employee engagement increased. We put a program called “Approaching Others” in place, which was a very simple concept: If you care about somebody, you’d be willing to approach them when you see them putting themselves at risk. If you care about somebody, you’ll also hopefully recognize safe behavior so it’s reinforced in the future. Simple concept, easy to talk about. The challenge obviously was to implement that effectively. How does a new employee have a conversation with a 30-year employee? Well, you’ve got to use the right language, approach is very important, the feedback’s got to be accepted.

What’s your advice to other companies who want to change their safety culture?

Fox: It’s going to take time and you’re just not going to push it on your own timeline. So being patient and then really ensuring that the organization is ready for each change. It takes three years to change a climate and six or seven years to change a culture. I believe that in my heart. In this case you’re talking about people, changing perspectives, mindsets, experiences. It takes a long time. It’s all about consistent execution year-in, year-out: consistency of the message, consistency of the program, reinforcing the previous years’ lessons. I think through that process, over time, you start building a level of trust in the organization. People see and say “OK, they’re serious about this. This is not the program de jour that we’ve seen in the past.”

Do you think all that time and effort has been worth it?

Fox: You know looking back even 10 years it’s a significant change. Safety is a BNSF value, not merely a priority. Priorities can change over time but a value is something that is deeply held. It’s lasting. It’s enduring. Safety as a value at BNSF means that nothing we do on the railroad is more important than the safety of our employees and people getting home to their families.



Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway
The BNSF Railway is one of the world’s largest freight railroad networks. It has  over 40,000 employees and owns or operates 32,000 miles of track in North America. The railroad operates 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.


Logistics Park Kansas City: Burlington Northern Santa Fe RailwayPhotos: Harvey Moshman, bnsf railway


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