Through the Motions: Japanese Rail Workers Point & Call to Promote Safety [ARTICLE]

Watching Japanese train conductors (and other railway staff) point all over the place as they perform their duties is nothing short of mesmerizing. Their accompanying verbalizations can also seem strange, apparently directed at no one in particular. But what appear at a glance to be a series of oddly redundant rituals is part of a proven strategy to increase safety across the country’s transportation network.

The system, known as pointing-and-calling (shisa kanko), “works on the principle of associating one’s tasks with physical movements and vocalizations,” explains Allan Richarz, “to prevent errors by raising the consciousness levels of workers.” Each habit becomes associated with multiple senses, upping awareness levels. According to studies, “the technique reduces workplace errors by up to 85 percent.”

Pointing and calling illustrated by figures on a railway station sign by Motohiko Sakazaki

As rail workers go about their day and perform rote duties, they point to screens and buttons and speak their actions aloud. Before leaving a station, for instance, they will point and look along the length of the track then give a verbal all-clear. Drivers will point down the tracks and at speed dials as they start up and depart. This set of behaviors naturally stands out to travelers unfamiliar with the approach.

The point-and-call system is not unique to the rail network in Japan though it is particularly visible in that industry, which facilitates 12 billion trips each year with renowned efficiency, accuracy and safety.

It is not entirely clear why the practice is not more widespread beyond Japan. The obvious theory, though, is that workers might feel a bit awkward at performing these redundant activities.

Still, a simplified version adopted by the MTA in NYC has been credited with a significant reduction in mistakes in that transit network as well. New Yorkers have had some fun with the system, too:


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