Job Safety

July 13, 2006

Lack of Sleep Causes Accident

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has just released its findings on an accident that occurred 3 years ago near San Antonio, Texas. It is rare for the NTSB to list fatigue as the primary cause of an accident. Usually something like equipment failure or operator error is indicated as the primary cause with fatigue often being a contributing cause. So this is new.

But at 5:30 a.m., Monday, June 28, 2004, a westbound Union Pacific Railroad (UP) freight train was under the control of a conductor and engineer both of whom were probably asleep. They did not respond to wayside signals to stop. Just outside of the rail siding in Macona, Texas the UP freight train smashed into an eastbound BNSF Railway Company train. The collision derailed 4 locomotives and 36 rail cars including one carrying liquid Chlorine. Steel cargo in one car ruptured the Chlorine tank. The escaping gas killed two local resident and the UP train conductor.

Given the schedule the conductor and engineer were working under, it is no wonder they were tired. But it did not help that they apparently made ineffective use of what off time they did have – drinking and card playing. The evidence suggests that both men were asleep or incapacitated by fatigue.

This fatigue would almost certainly have been detected with a simple screening test. More importantly, if they had known that a screening test for fatigue was likely, they would have acted differently and better used their off duty time. I think.

I call upon the railroads look at a program of impairment testing when crews are assigned difficult schedules and duty times.