July 3, 2012

CHICAGO (July 3)—It took two years of work, and it cost over $1 million.

It required input from five governmental and private institutions, as well as from the UTU and other rail labor organizations.

It involved the collaboration of dozens of railroad crew members and some of their spouses.

All the time and effort were worth it: For the first time, railroaders have a big, interactive Website dedicated solely to the problem of fatigue management, a major hazard to health and safety in a trade characterized by irregular work shifts that upset the body’s normal wake/sleep rhythm.

Hosted by the Federal Railroad Administration and titled “The Railroaders’ Guide to Healthy Sleep,” the site can be accessed at www.railroadersleep.org.

“This is the kind of tool railroad train and yard crews have been waiting for,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “’The Railroaders’ Guide to Healthy Sleep’ has everything we need to ensure we get a good night’s sleep regardless of our work schedules. It could have been called ‘Everything You Wanted to Know about Sleep Deprivation but Were Afraid to Ask.’”

Unlike earlier information sources on sleep deprivation, the new Website is not just a safety lecture or a set of “do’s and don’ts.” It’s a whole suite of resources that includes text, video and interactive self-administered tests the viewer can take to identify and treat his or her sleep problems.

One of the site’s most powerful features is a 6-minute video in which a freight engineer, a commuter engineer and a conductor sit over coffee in a diner while discussing their on-the-job drowsiness and close calls with former locomotive engineer and FRA Safety-Research Administrator Michael Coplen.

The group listens intently as Coplen tells them what happened the day he accepted a call to work after he already had gone 24 hours without sleep.

“I came around a corner with a loaded coal train and there was a caboose 20 car lengths in front of me,” Coplen tells the astonished railroaders. “I pulled the air on the train and I’m pushing the guys [the two other men in the cab] out the door. The guys on the caboose jumped. We came to a stop half a car length away.”

Railroaders aren’t the only ones who appear in the videos. The site also includes multiple interviews with some of the top MDs at the Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, plus Ann E. Rogers, Ph.D., R.N., a sleep specialist at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing.

If the videos look and sound professional, it’s no accident. After deciding to attack the sleep-deprivation issue on multiple fronts, the FRA turned to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe Transportation Center to get access to the latest research—and the top researchers—in fatigue-management strategies.

And to make sure the videos were as professional as the research, Volpe, based in Cambridge, Mass., turned to WGBH-TV, the public television station in neighboring Boston and award-winning producer of some of the nation’s top documentaries.

Even the spouses of railroaders appear in some of the videos.

“I try to help him out by making sure it’s real quiet in the house,” says Paula Kramer, wife of Omaha-based Union Pacific engineer Mark Kramer, in a video in which the couple talk about how they share the work in managing his irregular hours. “I like to turn the house phone off and try to catch anybody that comes through the front door.”

Other resources include an anonymous test in which viewers can input their symptoms to determine whether they suffer from sleep deprivation, and an interactive 24-hour clock that shows how a reduction in sleeping time of as little of an hour a day can quickly build up an aggregated sleep deficit that can take a week or more to overcome.

“Eight hours a day of sleep keeps you out of sleep debt,” says one of the Harvard sleep specialists. “Less than eight hours is like draining a battery.”

Scattered throughout the site are a whole series of tips, including recommended maximum caffeine intake, strategies for keeping a sleeping room darkened, and counsel from sleep doctors on appropriate and effective ways to use napping to replenish lost sleep. You’ll also find links to clinics and specialists that treat work-related sleep problems.

“’The Railroaders’ Guide to Healthy Sleep’ is something our members should welcome,” Guy said. “It provides a wealth of information on the particular sleeping problems encountered by railroaders and the strategies the medical profession’s top sleep experts have developed to help us manage them.

“But best of all is the way it puts all this information in the hands of railroaders and their families so they can confront the fatigue issue and overcome it through their own efforts.

“And that’s no accident,” Guy pointed out.

“Let’s not forget that the FRA administrator himself, Joe Szabo, as a young trainman experienced the same kind of sleep and fatigue challenges that railroaders face today,” he said.

“So when Joe weighs in on the issue he brings a truly unique level of expertise and authority. His background enabled him to project a vision of what railroaders really need when faced with the unique work-rest cycles that are an everyday part of the railroad industry.”

Guy said the new site is not just an information resource.

“It’s a self-empowerment tool,” he said. “It gives the railroad employee the ability to manage his or her fatigue issues with help from leading authorities in the field. I urge all UTU members to go on line and interact with it.”

A link to this new site will also be provided on our home page at www.illini.utu.org.