June 6, 2012

CHICAGO (June 8)—It’s hard to believe that fair weather and clear visibility could be hazardous to railroad switching personnel.

But nineteen years of numbers show that June and July continue to be peak periods for switching accidents—right up there with December and January, in fact.

The numbers come from SOFA—the Switching Operations Fatality Analysis–a multi-year study conducted by a team of safety officials from the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the Class I and short-line carriers, the UTU and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET).

SOFA’s most recent report said 193 switching fatalities occurred on U.S. rail properties since 1992. January accounted for 22 of the deaths, and December accounted for 23, but a second peak came in mid-summer, with 18 deaths recorded in June and 23 in July.

How can that be? Anyone who works in switching can explain the January-December peak: Foul weather can ruin visibility, while ice and snow buildup makes both humans and locomotives slip and slide. And cold, wind and precipitation can break the concentration of even the most attentive and conscientious employees.

So what’s the problem with summer? SOFA says part of it could be heat exhaustion.

“Impaired judgment is one of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and can be deadly in railroad switching,” says the most recent report.

Plus heat exhaustion is a stealthy threat that begins before an employee realizes anything’s wrong.

“It may be possible that heat exhaustion can creep up on an employee, because he or she can continue on with duties without realizing judgment, concentration and reaction time may be deteriorating,” the SOFA report says. “Employees may not recognize the early symptoms of heat exhaustion or [may]be unwilling to express their concerns to peers who continue to work.”

SOFA said shove moves tend to be particularly dangerous during the summer months, possibly because this type of maneuver requires employees to make quick judgments about the speed and deceleration of moving equipment from a long distance and at a disadvantageous perspective.

SOFA recommends that employees working outdoors keep themselves properly hydrated, even drinking water when not particularly thirsty, and that they be alert for symptoms of heat exhaustion: headache, dizziness, fatigue, intense thirst, heavy sweating, loss of coordination, nausea, loss of appetite, hyperventilation, tingling in the hands or feet, cool, moist skin and a weak or rapid pulse.

“Do not try to be macho or ‘tough it out’ if you notice these symptoms,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “Tell your foreman or supervisor you may be suffering from the heat and ask for a brief break during which you can sit down to drink some water until you feel stronger.

“Doing so may take only a few minutes from the job, but that’s a small price to pay for saving your life or that of a fellow crew member,” he said.

Guy said the summer months also can be hazardous to switching crews because they offer more distractions.

“Many employees are busy with last-minute vacation or holiday preparations or are focusing on how nice it’s going to feel to get away for a few weeks,” he said. “Some have just returned from vacation and are enjoying happy memories. Others are focusing on athletics, or yard chores they have to catch up on before winter, or home repairs they’re trying to complete while the weather’s still good.”

Guy said the temptation to daydream more during summer is understandable, but it’s not likely to be dangerous unless combined with heat exhaustion.

“The lessons from SOFA are pretty clear: Stay focused, stay cool and stay hydrated,” he said “If you feel you’re losing concentration or focus, recovery is probably just a drink of water and a minute of shade away.”

To read the full 2012 SOFA Quarterly Report go to www.utu.illini.org.