June 24, 2014

WASHINGTON (June 24)—Summer should be the safest time for engaging in railroad switching operations: Temperatures are favorable, the long days and short nights make for good visibility, ice and snow are gone, and railroad crews can move about freely without the burden of bulky clothing.

But despite an improvement in recent years, switching fatalities in June and July historically reach the same levels as those recorded in December and January.

According to the Switching Operations Fatality Analysis (SOFA), of the 195 switching fatalities recorded between January 1, 1992 and June 1, 2014, the largest number of such deaths—24—occurred in July. December, with 23 deaths, actually was in second place, while January was in third place with 22.

The “summer spike” begins in June, in which 18 deaths occurred during the 22 years in which SOFA has been collecting statistics. November, with only 9 deaths, appears to be the safest month.

How can that be? The winter spike has always been easy to understand. Frigid temperatures, snow and sleet, poor visibility and ice buildups on both rolling stock and walking surfaces are obvious dangers to anyone working near or aboard moving equipment in the out-of-doors.

So what’s the problem with summer?

SOFA, a joint effort of the Federal Railroad Administration, the Class I railroads, the short lines, SMART-TD, and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen (BLET), has been trying to answer that question since it began collecting and analyzing switching-fatality reports since 1992.

A major cause of summer fatalities, according to the SOFA analysts, is the deceptively “safe” nature of summer weather. While warm—and even hot—weather seems like an easier work environment than cold, it presents challenges that can distract and weaken an employee without the employee being aware that he or she is losing the ability to work safely.

Dehydration and heat exhaustion are the biggest dangers, according to SOFA. They develop slowly, so that an employee may not notice that a lack of judgment, poor concentration or slow reaction time have dulled normal responses. Employees are advised to drink plenty of water, stay in the shade as much as possible and take a quick break in an air-conditioned environment whenever the work permits.

.“The symptoms of heat exhaustion include: heavy sweating, intense thirst, dizziness, fatigue, loss of coordination, nausea, impaired judgment, loss of appetite, hyperventilation, tingling in hands or feet, anxiety, cool, moist skin, weak and rapid pulse and low-to-normal blood pressure,” according to the Summer 2014 SOFA report. “Employees should not continue to work if their judgment, concentration or reaction time is impaired.”

SOFA analysts continue to find that better communication is essential to preventing a workplace accident: If you feel your ability to do your job is weakening, let your coworkers know. If you think a fellow employee is losing attention or weakening physically, let him or her know. A short break and a drink of water usually can restore the employee’s capabilities in a short time.

The SOFA Working Group has always stressed communication as the best method of accident prevention. Because most carriers use on-the-job training rather than formal classroom instruction to prepare new employees for their work, it is essential that each conductor brief all crew members at the start of the shift on how the day’s work is to be done, which tasks each crew member will perform, and what hazards are likely to be encountered during the workday.

“The crew briefing is the single biggest contributor to workplace safety on the railroad,” said SMART-TD Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

“If the conductor willingly and cheerfully shares information with all the other crew members they will feel more confident about sharing information with him and asking him ques”tions when they do not fully understand an instruction,” Guy said. The last thing we want is a crew member who nods his head and pretends to understand and then goes to work without a full understanding of what he’s supposed to do.”

Guy said informative briefings and brisk discussion are particularly important in summer because vacations often cause employees to be rotated briefly into jobs with which they are unfamiliar.

“If you’re the ‘new man,’ never be afraid to ask that one last question,” Guy said. “The answer could save your life. And if you’re the regular foreman or conductor on a job, try not to be short-tempered with new hires. An extra minute or two to get the instructions clear literally could be the difference between life and death.”

Guy said summer also presents dangers because it’s the construction season when yards and main lines are most likely to be disrupted by crews working on track, rebuilding grade crossings and installing signals.

“And it’s also the season when shippers are most likely to be working on their properties,” he said. “Before performing the daily switch, foremen should check the property to make sure contractors’ vehicles are not fouling the tracks or docks where railroad operations are to take place. Make sure crane buckets and other aerial equipment have left enough clearance for the cars you are spotting.

Do not assume the owner of the property has briefed the contractor about switching operations, Guy said.

“Check everything out yourself, share everything you learn with your crew, and adjust the work routine to compensate for any deviations you find in the work environment.”

To read and print the latest SOFA report please visit www.illini.utu.org and “click” on SOFA Report.