Switching safety: Remain vigilant, remain safe

The Switching Operations Fatality Analysis (SOFA) Working Group is once again reminding railroad workers in yard and switching service to remain vigilant in the coming months. SOFA operating recommendations are important: a switching operation omitting one or more appropriate recommendations, and leading to a fatality, can not be undone.

The original SOFA Report was released in October 1999. Prior to the release, there were 47 Switching Fatalities related to the report's Five Operating Recommendations in the 7.75-year period January 1992 through September 1999. Expressed as a rate, there were 6.07 Switching Fatalities per year related to Operating Recommendations. In the post-SOFA Report period of 7.65 years, October 1, 1999 through May 25, 2007, there were 21 Switching Fatalities related to the Five Operating Recommendations. Expressed as a rate, there were 2.75 Switching Fatalities per year related to Operating Recommendations, a reduction of nearly 55%.

As of its prior quarterly report, there were no switching fatalities in 2007. However, since the publication of that report, there have been two switching fatalities as of August 15. The first was on July 7 in Berry, Ariz. A 37-year-old conductor was in the process of setting off nine cars on the siding at Berry when radio communication ceased. The locomotive engineer stopped, walked back to check on the conductor, and found him pinned under the wheel of a freight car. He was later pronounced dead.

The second occurred on July 27 in Fulton, Ky. A 46-year-old conductor was a member of a three person switching crew that was classifying cars into various tracks in the yard. The trainman was making the final few switching moves and heard the conductor state that he was hurt. The trainman found the conductor between two cars and determined that he had been knocked down and run over by a rail car.

The SOFA working group reminds BLET members of the following:

Recommendation 1

Any crew member intending to foul track or equipment must notify the locomotive engineer before such action can take place. The locomotive engineer must then apply locomotive or train brakes, have the reverser centered, and then confirm this action with the individual on the ground. Additionally, any crew member that intends to adjust knuckles/drawbars, or apply or remove EOT device, must insure that the cut of cars to be coupled into is separated by no less than 50 feet. Also, the person on the ground must physically inspect the cut of cars not attached to the locomotive to insure that they are completely stopped and, if necessary, a sufficient number of hand brakes must be applied to insure the cut of cars will not move.


This recommendation emphasizes the importance of securing the equipment. A thorough understanding by all crew members that the area between cars is a hazardous location, whether equipment is moving or standing, is imperative.

Recommendation 2

When two or more train crews are simultaneously performing work in the same yard or industry tracks, extra precautions must be taken:


Two or more crews are prohibited from switching into the same track at the same time, without establishing direct communication with all crew members involved.


Protection must be afforded when there is the possibility of movement on adjacent track(s). Each crew will arrange positive protection for (an) adjacent track(s) through positive communication with yardmaster and/or other crew members.

Recommendation 3

At the beginning of each tour of duty, all crew members will meet and discuss all safety matters and work to be accomplished. Additional briefings will be held any time work changes are made and when necessary to protect their safety during their performance of service.

Recommendation 4

When using radio communication, locomotive engineers must not begin any shove move without a specified distance from the person controlling the move. Strict compliance with "distance to go" communication must be maintained.

When controlling train or engine movements, all crew members must communicate by hand signals or radio signals. A combination of hand and radio signals is prohibited. All crew members must confirm when the mode of communication changes.

Recommendation 5

Crew members with less than one year of service must have special attention paid to safety awareness, service qualifications, on-the-job training, physical plant familiarity, and overall ability to perform service safely and efficiently. Programs such as peer review, mentoring, and supervisory observation must be utilized to insure employees are able to perform service in a safe manner.

In addition to the Five Operating Recommendations, the SOFA Working Group wants to make those engaged in switching operations aware of Special Switching Hazards. In its review of each of the 124 fatalities, the working identified a number of fatalities involving close clearances (10 fatalities), being struck by mainline trains (8 fatalities), and occurring during shove movements (61 fatalities). The number of fatalities involving close clearance and being struck by mainline trains would be greater if those classified both as a Special Switching Hazard and an Operating Recommendation were included in these fatality counts. The following are special switching hazards:



© 2007 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen