December 14, 2015

CHICAGO (Dec. 14)–After six years of steadily safer switching operations, the nation’s rail industry suffered an apparently anomalous spike in fatalities when three switchmen were killed in the third quarter of 2015.

“It saddens me to see the graph of switching fatalities suddenly reverse itself and post more fatalities in three months of 2015 than in all of 2014 or 2013,” said SMART-TD Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

Guy was referring to the statistics provided by the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis (SOFA) group, a joint voluntary effort to collect and analyze switching-accident information carried out since 1992 by the Class I and short-line railroads, the railroad operating crafts (SMART-TD & BLET) and the Federal Railroad Administration.

Although the sudden spike in switching fatalities is disturbing, Guy said, it should not be regarded as the beginning of a trend.

“Over the 23 years that SOFA has been collecting and analyzing data on switching accidents, the long-term trend in fatalities has always been downward, but the rate of decrease is not steady and is interrupted from time to time by a spike in fatalities,” he said.

When SOFA began analyzing switching fatalities in 1992 there were 14 in that year, with 15 recorded in 1993. Then, as SOFA began disseminating its analyses of how these accidents occurred and urging a series of safer practices, switching deaths began to fall—to 12 in 1994, 11 in 1995 and 7 in 1996.

“But although the overall trend was downward, there have always been interruptions in progress,” Guy said. “In 1997, switching deaths spiked back up to 11, then fell back for two years and then hit 13 in 2000. A two-year drop followed, reaching 6 in 2002, followed by a spike to 10, 11 and 11 in the next three years. Switching deaths are a roller coaster, but although there are high spots and low spots even the high spots get progressively lower.”

With only one fatality in all of 2013 there were high hopes that the industry was about to achieve the first fatality-free year in its history. But 2014 produced two and in 2015 three fatalities were recorded in as many months.

“On July 25 we lost a Canadian National yard conductor at Markham Yard in Homewood.” Guy said. “It’s not yet clear what happened but he appeared to have lost his footing while trying to board moving equipment. We’ll have to wait for the results of the investigation.” Guy said.

The second fatality occurred August 12 on the Norfolk Southern at Hattiesburg, Miss., when a trainee with only three weeks of service got coupled up between a 24-car shove and the standing cars to which it was coupling.

“Inexperience almost certainly played a role there,” Guy said.

The third fatality occurred September 29 when a Union Pacific switchman in Kansas City, Kans., was operating a remote-control job and was struck by another remote-controlled shoving movement on another track.

“The circumstances are still being investigated,” Guy said. “The final results almost certainly will yield new insights and lessons about how these accidents can be avoided, and as our trades embrace those lessons we will see the rate of fatalities resume its downward trend. But losing three lives is and always will be three too many.”

SOFA’s fourth-quarter analysis also included special recommendations for switching in the winter months, which Guy urged all members to heed.

“December actually has the worst record for switching accidents,” he said. “When temperatures plunge, employees must work in heavy clothing that restricts movement, and both walkways and moving equipment accumulate buildups of snow and ice that make walking, climbing and sometimes just plain riding hazardous.”

Guy said “slipped,” “fell” and “stumbled” are the words most often found in investigation reports of winter accidents.

“Walking and gripping surfaces can turn dangerous in a couple of minutes during a storm, and a favorable location where you knelt comfortably to couple air hoses yesterday can be wickedly dangerous 24 hours later,” he said.

SOFA also reported that winter weather and other conditions also seem to generate a spike in the number of employees struck by mainline trains.

“We need to be extra alert to our surroundings during winter, because the wind, the rain, the snow and the cold are constantly distracting us,” Guy said.

“The only sure solution is situational awareness,” he said. “Remember where you are. Remember what just happened. Remember where your fellow crew members and the fixed installations around you are—the signals, bridge railings, industrial loading docks, and adjacent yard tracks with their standing and moving equipment.”

“But above all else,” Guy said, “Be sure to work at a pace that you are comfortable with. Switching cars in December and January is a lot different from switching cars in June
and July.

“Every member is ultimately responsible for their own safety,” Guy said. “Don’t ever let anyone pressure you into working at a pace that feels unsafe.”

Guy said the winter of 2015-16 may turn out to be additionally dangerous because it’s sending mixed signals.

“Here in the Upper Midwest it’s not really winter yet,” he said. “El Nino is producing an unusually warm early winter, with fall-like temperatures in the ’60s across much of Illinois. Yet the illumination is poor, with the sun coming up late,setting early and throwing long shadows at noon. That’s confusing to the nervous system and can produce inappropriate responses.”

The best way to operate when nature is sending mixed signals, Guy said, is to use the same defensive strategy that railroad crews have always used, the rulebook.

“The Book of Rules says when a signal cannot be seen or is obscured it should be treated as displaying ‘its most restrictive indication,’” he said. “We need to treat nature’s mixed signals the same way. Take the slower, more cautious approach. Don’t move yourself or your equipment until you’re sure you’ve read all the signs correctly and know the movement is safe.

“And remember that the weather break we’re enjoying is temporary and could end at any time. Winter WILL come. The temperature WILL drop. And we have to be ready.”

To read the full SOFA Fourth Quarter report please go the and “click” on SOFA Report.