December 18, 2012

CHICAGO (Dec. 17)―It’s been an unusually mild winter so far for U.S. railroad crews: The temperature hasn’t hit zero, but the number of switching accidents has. So far this winter, no lives have been lost in switching accidents.

But numbers compiled by the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis Working Group suggest a fatal switching accident still could happen at any time.

SOFA, a workplace-safety partnership comprised of the railroad industry, the UTU and BLET and the Federal Railroad Administration, has been compiling statistics on fatal switching accidents since 1992. In each of those years, switching fatalities spiked during the winter months.

“It’s the weather, basically,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “Snow, ice, freezing rain, low temperatures and early sunsets present additional risks for those performing switching work.”

But the effects of the weather take two different forms, Guy pointed out―direct and indirect.

“A direct effect of the weather would be ice,” Guy said. “You can lose your footing on an icy walking surface, or you lose your grip because you didn’t see the ice on a grab iron.”

Guy said the other direct effect of weather is poor sensory perception, especially vision and hearing.

“In snow, rain or fog we simply can’t see our surroundings and react to them properly,” he said. “It’s harder to judge distances or closing speeds well. Rain or fog can mute the sound of rolling equipment. The latest SOFA Working Group report said that 65 per cent of the accidents involving a worker struck by a mainline train occurred from December through February.”

But it’s the indirect, or secondary, effects of weather that can be even more severe than the direct effects because we’re less aware that they’re happening.

“It’s distraction, mostly,” Guy said. “We don’t realize the weather is distracting us, but it’s at work silently and insidiously: You’re cold, so you automatically zip your jacket higher, or stuff one of your cuffs deeper into your glove. It only takes a second or two, but if you’re fussing with your clothing while you’re walking in the dark, you could lose your footing in an instant.”

In addition to its effects on people, the weather can cause equipment to misbehave, Guy noted.

“The SOFA analysis includes several cases where snow packed into flange grooves caused a car to derail, including one case in which the car toppled over and crushed the conductor who was riding on it during a shoving move,” he said. “Switching crews working off the railroad property on older and poorly maintained industrial sidings need to be extra alert for winter hazards.”

Guy also reminded members of rail crews that winter also brings with it a rise in seasonal illnesses that can cause their own form of distraction.

“It’s hard to stay alert and observant when you’re ill and we’ve all probably gone to work when we shouldn’t have,” he said. “If you don’t feel well, consider staying at home.”

To read the full 2012 4th Quarter SOFA report please visit, and don’t forget SOFA’s 5 “Lifesaver” Recommendations:

– Secure equipment before action is taken.
– Protect employees against moving equipment.
– Discuss safety at the beginning of a job or when a project changes (job briefings).
– Communicate before action is taken.
– Mentor less-experienced employees to perform service safely.

Guy noted that since SOFA started issuing its advisories in 1999, switching fatalities have followed a general downward trend and now are at an all-time low.

“There were 13 fatalities in 2000, and as recently as 2008 there were 12,” he said.

“But in 2011 there were only four, even though the railroad industry is busier than at any time in history and thousands of new employees are at work,” Guys said. “SOFA has helped create a more robust safety culture.

“But even four deaths are way too many. Our task now is to take the number of annual switching fatalities down to zero.”