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Now Is The Time To Address Rail Worker Fatigue

(BLET Editor’s Note: The following message from BLET National President Dennis R. Pierce has been excerpted from the October 2016 issue of the Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen News.)

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio, November 8 — On behalf of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, I applaud the Transportation Safety Board of Canada (TSB) for including rail worker fatigue as one of the 10 items on its 2016 Safety Watchlist. Similar to the Most Wanted List published annually by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the TSB’s Safety Watchlist identifies critical issues impacting transportation safety.

Kathy Fox, Chair of the TSB, said: “Fatigue has been a factor in numerous railway investigations, most notably regarding freight train operations. Too many train crews aren’t getting the rest they need, whether it’s shifts that are too long or irregular scheduling that interferes with normal sleep times. It’s time for the railway industry to start applying fatigue science to crew scheduling, instead of calling for more studies.”

My counterpart Doug Finnson, President of Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, said: “We’ve always believed that fighting fatigue should be based on sound science, not operational efficiency.” We in the BLET could not agree more. It’s time to stop putting profits ahead of safety. The time is now to address rail worker fatigue.

The TSB Watchlist notes that safety management systems should include a process for scheduling the work of certain employees, such as employees whose schedule is not communicated at least 72 hours in advance, or who are required to work beyond their normal schedule, or who are required to work between midnight and 6:00 a.m. Moreover, TSB says that process should be based on the principles of fatigue science.

In the U.S., the NTSB’s 2016 Most Wanted List also included a call to “Reduce Fatigue-Related Accidents” across all modes of transportation. The NTSB noted that: “Some of our earliest recommendations called for research to better understand the problem of fatigue in transportation, and, over the past three decades, a great deal of research has been done. But research only goes so far; we must implement what we have learned.”

Similarly, the TSB notes: “Even though the railway industry and Transport Canada have known sleep-related fatigue to be a problem for over 20 years, the initiatives taken to date have been inadequate to fully address the issue. As a result, fatigue continues to pose a risk to the safe operation of trains.”

I’ll say it again: the time is now to get serious and put an end to worker fatigue in the railroad industry.

As all rail workers know, fatigue can seriously degrade work performance and can contribute directly to accidents. Fatigue leads to slower reaction times, memory problems, poor decision-making, and inefficient information processing.

A main cause of fatigue for operating employees is the variable work schedules that rail crews are forced to endure. Unreliable schedules result in unpredictable and inconsistent patterns of awake and sleep time for locomotive engineers and trainmen, resulting in rail worker fatigue. Due to the unpredictable nature of their assignments, compounded by glaring deficiencies in the railroad’s train lineups as compared to actual call times, engineers and trainmen are more frequently subjected to situations where they are not adequately rested through no fault of their own.

The situation is made even worse by punitive carrier attendance policies that threaten employees with discipline for attempting to avoid hazardous conditions by taking time off due to fatigue. Under current attendance policy rules, engine and train service employees could be suspended from work or even fired for taking time off due to fatigue.

Allowing engineers to take time off due to fatigue — without fear of disciplinary retaliation — would be a good first step toward reducing fatigue. More accurate train line-ups would be an excellent second step. As the NTSB has noted, fatigue has been studied to death; indeed, many BLET members have participated in the various studies sponsored by the FRA and other government bodies for many years. Everyone knows what needs to be done, but the industry has not yet shown the willpower to manage their operations in a way that meaningfully addresses this scourge.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) recently published a regulation establishing the conditions for design and implementation of System Safety Plans (SSPs) by the nation’s passenger and commuter railroads. Also pending is a FRA regulation mandating that Class 1 and other freight railroads adopt Risk Reduction Plans (RRPs), which is a requirement pending since enactment of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008.

All SSPs and RRPs must include fatigue mitigation plans as a matter of law. In preparation for discussions that will take place with the various railroads next year, the National Division is hosting a program for passenger and commuter rail General Chairmen on December 12. That program will equip our General Chairmen, and their General Committees of Adjustment, with the tools necessary to fight for fatigue management plans within the SSP/RRP construct that will provide genuine relief from this significant safety hazard. A similar program will be offered to our General Chairmen of freight railroads required to implement RRPs once FRA’s final rule has been published.

The time for talk is over, and the need to act is more imperative today than ever before. We will provide future updates on this subject as development warrant.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016
bentley@ble-t.org

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