Samantha R. Lacey, B.A., University of Connecticut; Julia Leone, Ph.D., Short Line Safety Institute; Janet Barnes-Farrell, Ph.D., University of Connecticut

A mixed-methods case study analysis was conducted to investigate railroaders? perceptions of their organization’s response to COVID-19 regarding safety and safety culture. In order to better understand the top themes that emerged from a qualitative analysis of the railroaders’ open-ended comments, this study further employed quantitative data from a safety culture assessment conducted at their railroad. In particular, we sought to examine if employee perceptions of their organization’s COVID-19 response related to perceptions of their organization’s safety culture.

Safety culture is defined by ?how people feel, what people do, and the policies and procedures that an organization has when it comes to safety? [1]. In other words, an organization’s safety culture is said to be strong when people’s attitudes, behaviors, and organizational policies around safety align in such a way that safety is prioritized over all other competing demands. Research suggests that a strong organizational safety culture can have profoundly positive effects on safety-related outcomes; such as fewer and less severe accidents [2]. COVID-19 presents a unique opportunity to evaluate the strengths as well as opportunities to improve an organization’s safety culture. The freight rail industry did not pause during the pandemic and its employees continued to work. Given that safety and safety culture have been made a top priority in this industry [3], it is fruitful for empirical work to examine how a highly safety-conscious industry such as this responded to the pandemic and its threat to employee safety.

This mixed-methods case study analysis employed archival data collected from one large freight-carrying railroad, whose locations span across different cities in the U.S. In mid-late 2020, the railroad’s employees were invited to take an online survey developed and deployed by the Short Line Safety Institute. This survey assessed: employee perceptions of their organization’s safety culture (78 items), their organization’s COVID-19 response (i.e., new policies/procedures/practices; one-item), and provided employees the opportunity to elaborate/provide additional comments on the topic of COVID-19 in their workplace. All items in the survey were scored using a 1-5 Agree/Disagree response scale. Only those who provided an open-ended comment on the topic of COVID-19 in their workplace were included in the qualitative and quantitative analyses (N = 211).

A bottom-up, grounded theory approach was utilized to uncover themes/insights from these open-ended responses [4]. Two researchers coded each comment into as many themes as applicable and analyzed frequency counts to determine the top five most common. In addition, each theme was assigned a negative (1), neutral (2), or positive (3) code depending on the valence of the sentiment offered. The overall valence of a comment was determined by averaging the valence of the codes assigned to it. A series of bivariate analyses were conducted to investigate correlations between the valence of a participant’s open-ended comment, their response to the COVID-19 survey item, and their overall perception of safety culture at the railroad. Additional analyses are currently being performed to further explore how the top five themes that emerged from the open-ended comments relate to more specific aspects of safety culture.

Excluding 15 participants with “no comment”, 196 participants could be included in the following analyses. Their open-ended COVID-19 comments produced 358 total data points, and 27 themes that could be grouped into eight higher-level categories. The top five themes/categories that emerged are presented in Table 1. Bivariate analyses indicated a moderate positive relationship between the valence of participants? open-ended comments and their responses to the COVID-19 survey item (r = .31, p < .001), as well as participants’ average perceptions of safety culture at their organization (r = .30, p < .001). Participants’ responses to the COVID-19 survey item were also moderately positively related to safety culture perceptions (r = .40, p < .001).

The results of the qualitative analysis indicated that there are mixed sentiments from employees about whether or not their organization is supplying enough COVID-19 supplies (i.e., sanitizer, masks, etc.). Although many indicated that supplies are available, many also noted that they can be difficult to access and that general sanitization can be improved. Additionally, employees expressed a desire for more consistent COVID-19 policy enforcement. Based on other themes that emerged, we speculate this may stem in part from varying beliefs about the legitimacy of the pandemic, mask wearing, and the need for these new policies.

The results of our quantitative analysis so far show that employee perceptions of their organization’s COVID-19 response are positively related to perceptions of their organization’s safety culture. Additional analyses are currently being conducted to further explore how the top five themes that emerged from open-ended comments relate to more-specific indicators of safety culture (i.e., organizational commitment, management involvement). In this way, we may be able to more accurately identify the practical implications of this work.

This study highlighted the top five themes that emerged from a qualitative analysis of railroaders? perceptions of their organization’s COVID-19 response. Analyzing these themes alongside quantitative data on employee perceptions of safety culture, our results so far suggest that an organization’s existing safety culture may relate to its handling of the pandemic; a finding that bolsters existing literature on the many benefits of a strong organizational safety culture. Future research should aim to observe these relationships across multiple railroads and in other safety-conscious industries.

Tags: Applied research, Case studies; single study; informal field studies; or similar reports and findings, COVID-19, Empirical study, Hazardous Work Environments and Safety, Organization- and Job-Level Environments and Practices, Organizational Practices, Safety Climate; Safety Management; and Training, Secondary or archival analysis, Social and Organizational Environment, Transportation; warehousing; and utilities