Job Safety

March 19, 2007

Change the Rules

Quoted from the Columbian, Clark County, Washington:

Columbian editorial staff

Money can compete with safety when it comes to railroads, which is why it is encouraging that the government’s top railroad official is lobbying to change rules concerning workers’ schedules.

The change could lead to reduction in the number of train accidents caused by crew fatigue. The National Transportation Safety Board told Congress in February that fatigue has been a probable cause of 16 major train accidents in the past 23 years.

This policy change could impact a lot of people in Clark County. Vancouver, long a major switching and maintenance yard, has 450 train-yard and engine employees. More than 50 trains a day move through the terminal here.

Statistically, train workers already can expect to be involved in a fatal railroad accident if they spend a working lifetime on the tracks. There are simply too many people sitting, walking along or crossing tracks when they shouldn’t be.

What train engineers should not have to cope with is being so tired on the job that their physical state contributes to a wreck. Antiquated rules concerning the number of hours a person works versus the number of hours of rest between shifts are a problem.

Joseph Boardman, head of the Federal Railroad Administration, is asking Congress to repeal a 100-year-old law that regulates workers’ schedules, saying the laws are not up to date with scientific knowledge of the impact a lack of sleep has on workers. Boardman wants to require more rest between shifts, or shorter work days.

Right now, the Associated Press reports, train crews and signal workers can work 12 hours straight with 10 hours of rest. But if a train employee works even one minute less than 12 hours, law mandates just eight hours of rest. By the time one gets home, settles in and falls asleep, it isn’t hard to imagine workers getting inadequate sleep before they are due back at work. Unpredictable schedules are also a problem. If a worker doesn’t know when he might be called up next, how can he physically prepare and still have a decent family or social life?

While workers might crave more predictability and more rest, they also know any change is likely to hurt their pocketbooks if the industry has to hire more workers. Ensuring that current workers won’t face dramatic drops in income is key. Boardman and the National Transportation Safety Board need to continue working with unions representing train employees to find the best solution.