An Engineer's reflection on managing fatigue

It will take labor and management working together in good faith to eliminate problem

By Mark K. Ricci, Ph.D.
Chairman, Washington State Legislative Board, Brotherhood
of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen

The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), the United Transportation Union (UTU) and representatives from all major railroads operating in the United States have joined forces to implement an integrated fatigue management plan for the entire rail industry.

In the past, this Work/Rest Task Force actively employed the good faith efforts of many labor and management representatives. However, the efforts of the last decade did not produce the mitigation of fatigue necessary to foster a desired level of safe railroad operation and did not address the level of fatigue experienced by operating employees.

On Feb. 16, 2005, railroad officers and labor leaders issued a statement of principles designed to invigorate fatigue management efforts in the US using fatigue management plans. Much of the current work has built on the successes of labor and management in the late 1990's with one major difference: the adoption of a concept of a "continuous improvement process." In scientific terms, this means evaluating existing and new processes and collaborating (management and labor) to design processes that improve fatigue mitigation and provide a safer railroad operation. In a Hoghead's language it means taking the call, setting out the bad orders, and highballing again.

Like you, I know that the train is not ready to move until the brakes have been checked, the power is ready, and the signal is a high green. This is the same idea that is going to provide a workable fatigue management plan to mitigate unsafe levels of railroad worker fatigue.

The difference in the current attempt to address fatigue is the willingness to evaluate the effects of the fatigue mitigation efforts, get rid of what does not work, and try new strategies that have been shown to work in other locations. Evaluation is the key difference between the effort adopted on February 16, 2005, by labor and management and all previous attempts to address fatigue. Further, since evaluation must be integrated into the process from the very beginning, engineers do not need to wait five years to determine if this is going to be a success or a failure. Engineers are going to know within months if these strategies are "loading or just idling."

Management and Labor working together in good faith will give individual railroad workers the ability to retain the greatest number of options possible to address their individual experience of fatigue. Unfortunately, given the history of railroad worker fatigue, accidents investigated by the NTSB, and ongoing research, this is perhaps the last best hope for an industry inspired solution before a public call for action imposes a fatigue solution that may not be empathetic to railroad culture.


© 2005 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen