Monday, April 4, 2016

The Tragedy of Safety vs. Customer Service

Portland's spring has sprung!
"Safety is our core value," says our management.

"Bullshit," says I.

I'm reminded of a scene in The Shawshank Redemption where Red comes in front of the parole board for the final time. They ask if he's been "rehabilitated". His response is that of an irritated, tired old man who is done with their nonsense. His plea has been rejected twice before, and after 30 years behind bars, Red doubts if he can make it on the outside.

"You know," he says with a sigh, "I don't have any idea what that means."

Parole board guy starts to say something, but Red interrupts.

"I know what you think it means sonny," Red says. "To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so that young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job."

This is exactly how I feel about my employer's "safety" statement. It's so easy to say: "We value safety." Easy, that is, if you're sitting behind a desk pulling a six-figure salary instead of doing what we do for half that pay, making the wheels go around. Operators don't just think safety, we breathe it. We devour and digest, rinse and repeat it. Safety lives with us from the time the alarm interrupts our rest until pillow time returns. Each moment we're responsible for a transit vehicle, safety is the main subject of every thought we have or move we make. Our personal safety seems less important than the sanctity of the vehicle or the customers who ride it. Our customer service skills seem to resonate more with management than the actual safety of those we serve.

I had a discussion with my manager one day, and it was about whether I should serve somebody who throws all caution to the wind, runs across a busy street and directly in front of a bus, demanding a ride. Most bus operators will say "they're too stupid to ride the bus, pass 'em by". But not according to management. We're supposed to stop what we're doing and give them a ride. All in the name of customer service. If I do as they say and board this passenger, it says to everyone on the bus, "It's okay to do stupid stuff because they'll let you on anyway". It's a terrible example to set. Safety be damned, we're customer service representatives now. Once upon a time, professional drivers were respected. Now, that idiot who nearly became pavement paint is to be catered to, rather than taught an important lesson in safety. To management, boarding that passenger is a safety procedure.

Usually, when boarding somebody who has narrowly avoided death under a vehicle, they're the first to insult the operator who opened the door to them. They rarely thank us. Of the 100 calls to our customer service, a full 99 are complaints from people who often lie or don't understand the situation. Customers think we're machines, and we have no authority to tell them how stupid it was to run against a traffic signal to catch a bus that runs every 10-15 minutes. It doesn't matter if we're 10 minutes late; they don't know and they don't care. The next bus could be a few car lengths behind ours, but they have to catch this one. If we drive off without them, you can be sure their next call will be a complaint.

Why did the district continue to buy new buses with a safety hazard we've brought to their attention numerous times? The extended front end of the new Gilligs is a vision barrier. The "A frame" windows actually can obscure our vision of side streets. Instead of heeding our warnings, the district boasts another 70+ new buses this year, all with the same design flaw. The district's answer? Rock and roll, baby. Sure, we do this anyway. But to do it several more times a minute than necessary on a traditional flat-front vehicle adds extreme amounts of stress and fatigue to bodies that get a tough workout several hours a day. Ever heard of repetitive motion injury? Bus operators suffer this in alarming numbers. Driving a bus is a strenuous job in addition to one of the most stressful. Our right foot pivots from accelerator to brake thousands of times a shift. My boot heels are worn down after only a few months from this repetitive motion. Our legs, and actually our whole body behind them, depress the brake pedal thousands of times a day. It takes a great deal of pressure to slow and stop a 40,000 pound vehicle, because the pedals aren't as easy to depress as they are on a car.

There are many arguments to be made about Operator Safety. If "Safety is our Goal", why did the district quit providing eyeglass cleaner? Is our clear vision not a safety concern? Sure, we can provide our own. But if "Safety" is Management's goal, wouldn't it make sense to make the extra effort to ensure something as simple as eyeglass cleaner is readily available?

Many operators have been victim of assaults, yet forced to continue with their shifts. This is in direct contrast with what "safety" actually entails. When an incident occurs that is out of the ordinary, it triggers the body's "fight or flight" response. The brain sends commands to all parts of the body when faced with immediate danger. Adrenaline increases, blood flow concentrates on the core, hormones race, the heart pumps faster, breathing increases, muscles tense, senses like eyesight and hearing intensify; all these are part of the body's innate response to a threat. We are slapped and punched, spit and puked upon, screamed at, stabbed and shot at. While I've been lucky when faced with dangerous situations and have been allowed to "call it a day" without repercussion or time loss, fellow operators have not been treated as I have. A few months ago, one operator reported an assault yet no police responded and she continued her route. Another operator's bus was riddled with bullets, yet she had to finish her route. When her manager granted a day to deal with the post traumatic stress, she says she wasn't paid for it.

My brother Henry Beasley has advocated that the Standard Operating Procedures be amended to provide a (paid) cooling-off period for operators who have experienced a stressful situation, and I agree. As he so aptly describes it, a driver with diminished capacity "is a safety hazard to themselves, passengers and the general public". This is a crucially important statement. An operator who has just experienced an assault or other incident isn't thinking "safety" once the wheels are rolling again. They're thinking about what just happened to them, and are experiencing emotions best dealt with in their own homes. A soul needs time to recover, and if an operator is forced to do so behind the wheel of a bus carrying even one passenger, then that passenger's safety is then compromised. This seems to be of no concern to the district. None whatsoever. And the operator's safety certainly seems to not be important either.

Our supervisors and dispatchers know what we go through out there, and they have always been extremely supportive of me when something out of the ordinary happens. I'm usually given the option to continue on route or take recovery time. I'm very grateful for these brothers and sisters, for they have done the very job I'm entrusted with. The problems seem to lie with those managers who have never driven a bus in service. They just don't get it. They haven't been screamed at by a manic passenger who might just have a weapon under that jacket. They don't have to make split second decisions that could save some idiot's life but throw a passenger onto the floor resulting in a Preventable Accident. The managers who have driven a bus actually understand what we go through, and I'm lucky to have one of them. But if management truly cared about "Safety", they wouldn't be forcing us to give rides to the unsafe. It's not good "customer service" to encourage stupidity.

During my last Recertification Class, someone from the "Safety" department came in to present his idea of the term. It consisted of graphs and charts boasting how "safe" our job has been lately. Then he left the room while we watched a movie about Slips Trips and Falls. Come on. Really? I learned about that stuff in grade school. Is our Safety Department so detached from what we face out there that their main concern is how we walk?

The higher up the management, the more detached from reality they are. When I saw my sister Pamela's bruises that Christmas Eve, I wept. Not only for her, but also in fear of knowing it could someday happen to a dear friend, family member, or even myself. As she trembled facing her accuser, I felt so damn proud of her. At the same time, my anger toward our upper management intensified due to their conspicuous absence in the courtroom. When her attacker wasn't dealt the harshest of sentences, my confidence in the court's protection was wounded.

If "Safety is a core value", I'd like to know why a mobster is a more vigilant protector than our employer or the law; at least he kicks some ass when someone messes with his employee.


  1. When someone takes chances in traffic to try and catch a bus, you are rewarding them for dangerous behavior. "Are they a danger to themselves or others?" That is the starting point to diagnose a mentally unstable person. We are Not equipped to transport those #5150's in public transit vehicles. That's what medical is for.

  2. Re. the Gilligs with extended front ends- The answer of "rock and roll, baby", was undoubtedly from a supervisor or assistant manager who was dutifully putting lipstick on a pig in the service of his higher-ups. The purchase orders were already issued; more new Gilligs were on the way with streamliner front ends. His dissenting voice would be irrelevant to his bosses.
    Maybe Gillig-initiated studies can show otherwise, but it sure seems unlikely that the new bolt-on front end changes a transit bus from workmanlike city transportation into a dreamliner. Same food wrappers on the floor; same cell phone shouters; same smelly individual in the seat next to you... But, I'm sure that Marketing felt a tingling of excitement that this feature would do what all the "happy Trimet driver" posters had not for Trimet's public image.

    Too bad that operators will be living with this feature until 2031 at least.

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