(Katie Chimelewski, above center, joined ARTBA in January 2019. These are excerpts from her April 12 speech at a Maryland Transportation Builders & Materials Association meeting. They appear in the May/June issue of ARTBA’s Transportation Builder magazine.)

By Katie Chimelewski,  director of safety & certification, ARTBA

On my fourth day in a Community Affairs and Safety Department position at CSX Transportation, I heard this message crackle over the trainmaster’s radio: “Boss, we’ve hit a cement truck.”

The trainmaster, Dennis, was a 19-year railroad veteran.

He intently absorbed further details of the incident, and we immediately diverted the car we were sharing from our original destination to the railroad/highway crossing in rural Hillsborough County, Florida. I switched from a community relations role to crisis response mode.

That day, I saw and learned first-hand the impact of one safety incident. That day, my definition of safety changed forever. That day, I knew my career would focus solely on safety and no longer on community affairs.

Nobody knows why the cement truck driver did not see or hear the train traffic that afternoon. Weather conditions were good; sight distance clear; the train crew sounded the horn; all the required roadway crossing signage was in place.

Dennis’ wife taught school with the truck driver’s wife. The couples were close friends for over 30 years. The truck driver’s death not only impacted his family but also the entire community.

How quickly things change. The driver regularly ate at the Burger King where I now dashed for sandwiches to feed first responders; he frequently filled up at the gas station where I bought bottled water and Gatorade for the crew; and he recreated at the bowling alley near the crossing, now used to stage the wrecking equipment.

These local businesses and schools, first responders and church congregations, family and friends in the small farming community east of Tampa all were impacted by that one fatality.

Over the years, I’ve come to realize many things about safety. Most importantly, it is a time commitment and a financial investment. Giving short shrift to it can costs lives.

In the United States, a person or a vehicle is struck by a train every three hours. For years, I opened my railroad safety presentations with this startling number. Now, I am citing another grim statistic: 50,000 people injured and killed in and around U.S. transportation project sites annually, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

This number is not acceptable. That’s why ARTBA continually works to ensure transportation construction industry workers and the public that travels through and near our work zone are better protected. We are doing this by:

  • Promoting the Safety Certification for Transportation Project Professionals™ (SCTPP) program, found at puttingsafetyfirst.org;
  • Creating new training courses and materials that address “hot topic” safety issues in partnership with the Federal Highway Administration and Occupational Safety & Health Administration; and
  • Working with our members and other safety professionals to further existing activities that help spread work zone safety messages and best practices. I challenge you to join the elite group of transportation safety professionals who have earned the SCTPP credential.

Please contact me at kchimelewski@artba.org.