June 2, 2013

WASHINGTON (June 5)—Railroad switching fatalities reached historic lows in 2011 and 2012, and only one switching fatality has occurred so far on the U.S. rail system in 2013, according to the most recent release from the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis group (SOFA).

“Those numbers are a testament to our members’ dedication to performing their work safely,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “They deserve a lot of credit for this long historic stretch. They have taken the responsibility for their safety into their own hands and refused to allow others to divert or weaken their safety commitment.”

The most recent SOFA release advises railroad switching personnel and their supervisors not to allow safety consciousness to slip just because the weather is warmer. In fact, the document advises railroaders to be particularly cautious after Memorial Day because the historic data show June and July to be peak months for switching fatalities.

“Since 1992, June and July [showed an] average 21.0 fatalities vs. 15.3 for other months,” the latest SOFA release said.

SOFA, a voluntary, non-regulatory partnership with representation from the Association of American Railroads, American Short Line Railroad Association, Federal Railroad Administration, UTU and BLET, has been collecting switching-accident information dating back to 1992 in an effort to identify accident causes and develop fatality-prevention strategies.

The 20-year collection of data clearly shows a spike in fatalities in December and January and another spike in June and July.

“The problem in both cases could be attributed to the weather,” said Guy.

But the nature of the weather threat differs according to the season, Guy pointed out.

“It’s easy to see why fatalities would rise in the winter,” he said. “Snow, ice, darkness, slippery walking surfaces and hand-holds are an understandable threat.”

What’s less easy to understand, Guy said, is the particular safety threat posed by summertime switching work.

“The big problem seems to be heat prostration,” he said. “We think of summer as a more pleasant and favorable work environment than winter, but that’s true only if you keep yourself hydrated and stay aware of how intense heat and glaring sun are affecting your situational awareness, attention and response time.”

The onset of heat prostration can be subtle, Guy warned.

“It could start with heavy sweating, fatigue, loss of appetite and a general weariness,” he said. “These are symptoms that are easy to dismiss, but they can lead directly to a temporary loss of memory, reduced coordination, failure to understand an instruction or missing a signal. Even a half-second lag in processing information can cause you to lose your grip on the side of a piece of equipment, trip over a switch stand or mis-read a number in a timetable. It only takes a fraction of a second to have a fatal accident.”

If initial symptoms of heat exhaustion are not heeded and treated, more serious effects soon follow, including nausea, weak and rapid pulse (120-200), intense thirst and dizziness, the SOFA report said.

“A railroad worker should never try to ‘tough it out’ through such an episode,” Guy said. “Continuing to do so could only endanger you and your fellow employees.”

The SOFA report also urged railroaders who engage in switching operations to be particularly aware of close clearances that still remain on many older industrial properties, such as loading docks, mine loadouts and tracks inside of buildings.

Finally, SOFA urged experienced employees to mentor younger workers about the dangers of heat exhaustion.

“It’s the younger ones who are more likely to engage in what they imagine to be heroic behavior but is really just carelessness,” Guy said. “It’s up to the old hands to explain to them that ‘Safety First’ and macho behavior don’t go together. If you feel heat exhaustion coming on, take a break to recover and be sure to hydrate yourself.”

To read the full 2013 Second Quarter Sofa report visit www.illini.utu.org.