September 16, 2013

WASHINGTON (Sept. 16)—Only one U.S. railroad crew member has died so far in a switching accident this year, putting 2013 on track to be the safest year in history for U.S. railroad workers.

And the low fatality rate is “no accident.” It’s part of a long-term trend in which switching fatalities and injuries have declined about 80 per cent over the last 20 years.

Those encouraging statistics come from the Washington office of the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis (SOFA) group, a rail-safety partnership of the UTU, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Association of American Railroads and the American Short Line Railroad Association.

“SOFA began in 1998 as an effort to collect and analyze information about switching accidents,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “It’s an information-driven effort. All the parties realized that it would be futile to urge employees and managers to work safely if both parties continued to lack an understanding of how accidents happen and what kinds of behavior tend to lead to accidents.”

So SOFA began collecting details on the environmental and behavioral elements that contribute to switching accidents.

“It’s a voluntary, non-regulatory panel that has no authority to engage in rulemaking,” Guy said. “All SOFA does is collect and analyze accident statistics and issue recommendations and advisories that can help prevent repetitions of those accidents.”

The effort seems to be working, Guy said. When SOFA started looking into switching incidents for 1992, it identified 14 fatalities, and in 1993 it identified 15.

“But as the SOFA group began sharing its statistics and advisories with the industry and with organized labor, those switching-accident numbers began to drop,” Guy said. “Only 12 fatalities were recorded in 1994, 11 in 1995 and 7 in 1996. Injuries declined at the same rate.

“The numbers had their ups and downs—back up to 11 in 1997, then down again for two years and a spike at 13 in 2000,” Guy said.

“But even though there were peaks and valleys, both the peaks and the valleys got lower and lower until in 2011 there were only 4 fatalities, then 3 in 2012 and now only one so far this year,” he said. “The SOFA project is working.”

What SOFA did, Guy said, is provide rail crews with so much information on the causes of fatal accidents that employees now are armed with the tools they need to resist managerial demands that involve unsafe work practices.

“The most dangerous work practices and workplace conditions now are known, understood and documented,” Guy said. “Rolling equipment is still a big problem. The SOFA numbers show that when long cuts of cars are switched without air in them, slack run-out is likely to spill crew members riding the car farthest from the engine.”

Even on main-line trains with air in the system slack can run out when the brakes are released prior to the train’s departure,” Guy said.

“SOFA found a case in which a long train had stopped with its consist straddling both slopes of a hill so that the helper engine on the rear could be cut off,” he said. “When the brakes on the train were released the slack on the rear half of the train quietly ran out, and the last car struck and killed the conductor of the helper engine as he was walking back to re-board his locomotive.”

Other common causes of switching accidents documented by SOFA include inexperienced employees, close clearances, and industrial hazards at switching sites located on customer property.

“Anyone who’s ever switched a grain elevator or a building-materials yard or a corn-syrup plant knows that the tracks used for switching run across company-owned roads that do not have gates or lights,” Guy said. “In some cases, the tracks run right down the same alignment as the road and are embedded in the road surface. Motor vehicles and machinery often are parked too close to the tracks, and sometimes materials such as pallets, barrels, lumber or piles of grain or sand are left on the tracks.

“These are hazardous environments, and crews are entirely within their rights to refuse to work in such environments until the property owners have removed the hazards,” Guy said.

SOFA findings indicate that a disturbing number of fatalities and injuries also are caused by fast-moving trains on main-line tracks adjacent to switching tracks where crew members are working on the ground.

“This is why the Illinois Legislative Board recently sought action to make CSX install walkways and hand rails on the outside of several three-track viaducts on Chicago’s South Side,” Guy said. “The outside track was a siding for assembling trains, but the crews could not work on the field side because of the lack of hand rails and walkways on the viaducts, so they were forced to work on the inside next to a busy main line. SOFA’s numbers confirm this is a dangerous practice. They provided our union with the ammunition we needed to pursue a regulatory remedy.”

Guy said most of the problems SOFA has identified have a common solution: better communication among all the parties essential to a solution.

“Railroad employees must communicate with their management, management must communicate with the customers, and crew members must communicate with one another,” he said.

“SOFA always emphasizes the importance of employee briefings,” he said. “Before beginning the day’s work, the conductor or switch foreman needs to communicate with the other crew members about the nature of the assignment, how it is to be performed, and what role each member is to play.”

Guy said briefings are especially important if an inexperienced employee has been assigned to the job.

“Older members need to familiarize the younger employee with any hazards at the work site, such as poor sight lines, slippery surfaces, close clearances. The boss has to make it clear whether they will communicate with hand signals or by radio. Everybody’s got to be on the same page.”

Guy said SOFA’s recommendations and advisories have led to several new rulemakings by the Federal Railroad Administration, but even in areas where no formal rules are in effect, SOFA research has led to safer work practices.

“Essentially, crews and managers now understand that stepping up the pace of work in order to get an early quit doesn’t buy you anything,” he said. “Thanks to SOFA, we now know what safe work habits look like and which short cuts kill, and crews and managers are beginning to act accordingly.

“Looking forward to 2014, it’s my sincere hope that for the first time in the history of the U.S. railroad industry we are going to pass an entire calendar year without a switching fatality,” Guy said. “That would be an outstanding achievement and a true testament to our members ever-evolving safety-first mentality.”