Policy statement on Transport Canada’s rail safety culture

This policy statement was created to help railway companies define and understand the positive and negative elements that affect safety culture. This should help the industry create strategies to improve rail safety, and improve the effectiveness of the safety management system that they use.

An organization’s “safety culture” is the shared values, beliefs, actions, and behaviours that show a shared responsibility and commitment to safety by all employees. This responsibility and commitment is shown through the actions, decisions and behaviours of employees.

An effective safety culture can reduce:

  • deaths and injuries
  • property damage from railway accidents, and
  • the impact of accidents on the environment

It’s important to note that a lack of a safety culture is seen as a contributing factor in many rail accidents.

In order to create and maintain a positive safety culture, organizations have to make safety a way of life. It has to be a core value that’s key to the way the company, managers and employees do business.

As Canada’s rail safety regulator, Transport Canada promotes safety culture as a vital part of good safety management systems. Research suggests that safety management systems are not effective without a good safety culture and that an organization can’t have a positive safety culture without a strong safety management system.

The 2018 Railway Safety Act Review raised the importance of safety culture as a key part of a safe rail system and the need to always improve. It also highlighted Transport Canada’s role in promoting safety culture.

In response, Transport Canada created this policy statement to show our commitment to supporting and encouraging a positive rail safety culture to develop in Canada.

A framework for safety culture

In response to the 2007 Railway Safety Act Review Panel Report a working group adopted this definition of “safety culture”:

“The safety culture of an organization is the result of individual and group values, attitudes, perceptions, competencies and patterns of behavior that determine the commitment to, and style and proficiency of, an organization’s health and safety management system. Organizations with a positive safety culture are characterized by communications from various stakeholders founded on mutual trust, by shared perceptions of the importance of safety and by confidence in the efficacy of preventative measures.”

The working group proposed a framework with 5 positive elements:

  • leadership and a commitment to safety
  • two-way communication
  • involving stakeholders, employees and employee representatives
  • a learning culture, and
  • a just culture

Since 2007, we’ve learned a lot about the link between safety culture and an effective safety management system. Even more so after the tragic accident in Lac Mégantic, Quebec in 2013. These lessons led us to develop stronger safety management system regulations in 2015, and other projects to make the rail industry safer.

Transport Canada then reviewed and updated our safety culture framework. We learned from high-risk industry regulators (such as the National Energy Board and Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission) that when investigating major disasters, considering negative influences of the event was just as important to understanding the failures that led to the accident.

The negative elements of an organization’s safety culture can undermine the success of their safety management system. As such, it’s important to promote things that strengthen safety (the “positive elements”), while also dealing with the things that undermine it (the “negative elements”).

These factors are listed further on in this document.

Transport Canada’s role as a regulator

Transport Canada’s goal is to make sure that railway operations in Canada are as safe as possible.

Railway companies are responsible for creating and maintaining a positive safety culture. Transport Canada can support industry by:

  • setting clear expectations
  • promoting a clear, common understanding of key concepts, and
  • promoting best practices

While other Canadian regulators have created regulations that require safety culture assessments, Transport Canada does not plan on developing safety culture regulations.

Transport Canada’s rail safety culture framework

Positive elements

Leadership and a commitment to safety culture

  • Showing leadership’s commitment to safety at the executive and senior level, and by line management
  • Having safety as a core value at all levels
  • Making resources available to address safety
  • Building safety into all levels of the company through policies, processes, procedures, goals and projects

Two-way communication

  • Supporting communication between management and employees (such as safety meetings, town hall meetings, safety forums, briefings, mentoring, performance reviews)
  • Improving employee awareness and understanding of safety (through newsletters, communiqués, brochures, safety flashes, training) 

Involving stakeholders, employees and employee representatives

  • Involving stakeholders, employees and employee representatives in risk assessments and investigations
  • Letting stakeholders, employees and employee representatives participate in safety site visits, walkabouts, audits, etc.
  • Creating empowered and proactive health and safety committees 

A learning culture

  • Always trying to improve through internal and external reviews
  • Monitoring safety trends (such as trend analysis)
  • Using leading indicators (such as near-misses, audit results, rule violations, health and safety effectiveness)

Clear accountability for safety

  • Recognizing that skilled people can make mistakes
  • Accepting that everyone has a role to play when it comes to safety
  • Clearly defining, documenting and making sure that employees understand the roles and responsibilities for all levels and positions in the organization

A just (fair) culture

  • Encouraging and recognizing employees through company policies
  • Creating an internal escalation process for unresolved health and safety issues
  • Offering an internal recourse process for employees to deal with safety issues (such as safety ombudsman)
  • Investigating accidents and incidents without placing blame

Negative elements

Complacency (a false sense of security)

  • Assuming that all parts of safety are improving, which may not be true
  • Being overly sure of safety system and its performance
  • A reactive (instead of proactive) approach to safety

Productive pressure (tension between safety and production)

  • Failing to assign resources to safety precautions
  • Trading safety margins to save time
  • Applying pressure to limit production delays

Accepting rule-breaking

  • Believing that non-compliance is okay
  • Managers may approve of or ignore this behavior if performance improves

Tolerating poor systems and resources

  • “Making do” with poor systems and resources
  • Not recognizing the value of safety systems and resources
  • Failing to provide enough human and financial resources, and skills to manage risks


This policy statement shows Transport Canada’s commitment to supporting the rail industry’s work to improve safety culture. It provides a clear way for both Transport Canada and industry to better understand the challenges involved in building a positive safety culture.

We strongly encourage Canada’s rail industry to use this policy statement as a way to improve safety within the industry.