September 22, 2015

CHICAGO (Sept. 22)—Despite a continuing downward trend in railroad switching accidents, two fatalities have been recorded so far in 2015, and the researchers at the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis (SOFA) group think they know why: Both had limited experience at their jobs.

SOFA, a group consisting of Rail Labor (SMART-TD & BLET), the rail carriers and the Federal Railroad Administration, has been tracking switching fatalities and injuries since 1992, issuing findings and recommendations that have contributed to a nearly steady drop in fatalities over the 22 years since studies began. Fifteen railroad employees were killed while performing switching duties in 1993. Last year only two were.

But that impressive steady decline could be in peril. We’re only three-quarters through 2015, and already two members of switching crews have died. A contributing cause could be new-hire training.

SOFA suspects the problem was that the two were still new at their jobs and had not yet learned enough from their senior colleagues to recognize when they were in hazardous situations.

The first fatality occurred August 12 on the Norfolk Southern at Hattiesburg, MS.

“A trainee with three weeks’ service suffered fatal injuries while working within a local propane industry,” the SOFA report said. Apparently, the trainee was riding the last car on a 24-car shove move and was crushed between that car and a cut of cars to which the job was being coupled.

Closer to home, a Canadian National conductor with 26 months of service was killed July 25 at Markham Yard in Homewood, IL. The National Transportation Safety Board has launched an investigation into that incident.

“Both of these tragic accidents had similar markers, each involved inexperienced employees” said SMART-TD Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

One of the problems, said Guy, is that railroad crews today are smaller and crews receive so little formal training that youngsters don’t always get exposed to the “fine points” of staying out of hazardous situations.

And the SOFA analysts agreed.

“There may not be an effective balance of classroom training and On-The-Job-Training (OJT) within the railroad industry,” The report also pointed out that the statistical risk of a fatal or injurious accident arises when a crew has more than one inexperienced employee.

“The inexperienced employee may face difficulties performing at an effective level because of the relative[ly] short period of time spent in the craft or because of the amount of time spent in training. Having multiple inexperienced employees on the same crew possibly creates an excessive burden on each crew member.”

“These findings are not surprising,” Guy said. “Lack of experience in itself is a hazard. In World War II, most of the fighter pilots who died were in their first 30 days of service. The squadron leaders used to say if they could get a pilot through his first 30 days he probably would survive and go home to his family. Motorcycling seems to follow a similar rule: Most fatalities occur among drivers who just got their first motorcycle.”

“The railroad industry should identify additional methods to make education, training and mentoring of inexperienced employees more effective, including a method to provide feedback on what approaches and techniques work well,” the SOFA analyst wrote.

“That’s good advice,” Guy said, “especially on the mentoring point. But how do you get the railroads to do that? Until the railroads display a willingness to train new employees thoroughly and then arrange for them to be mentored appropriately during their first year on the job, there’s no way to assure a new hire will pick up all the little nuances of the trade that ensure safety in all situations.

And it’s not just the nuances that need to be learned, Guy said.

“It’s attitudes, and attitudes are not taught the same way as techniques and tricks,” he said. “You pick up the right attitudes by working in the close presence of others who have the right attitudes. The older, wiser ones teach the younger and more inexperienced ones by example and repetition. Not everybody is a natural teacher, but we must do more to ensure that new and inexperienced members are being mentored by quality co-workers.”

“It takes time to change mindsets and attitudes,” Guy said. “But gradually our members are coming to realize that they are ultimately responsible for their own safety and that no one but themselves can dictate how safe they work.”

To read the 2015 SOFA Third Quarter report which includes a special section on “Inexperience in Switching: Some remedies” please go to our website at