Metro plans to place limit on hours some rail employees can work

November 17, 2011

Hoping to reduce fatigue among rail employees who work in safety-critical jobs, Metro plans to impose a 14-hour cap on the number of hours that automated train control technicians, power employees and heavy-equipment operators can work by the end of next year.

That is one of many recommendations that managers offered Thursday during a Metro board safety and security committee meeting to address what one member described as a “serious dilemma” for the transit authority.

General Manager Richard Sarles said Metro will also require all supervisors to attend mandatory fatigue-awareness training and hire an expert who would examine how to identify and prevent worker fatigue. A recent study found that some employees did not know the existing training was mandatory, officials said.

Sarles described the issue as complex and said the expert would look into all aspects of what causes worker fatigue.

“It’s the food you eat, the time you work; it’s not just overtime,” he said.

The proposals will cost about $11 million and be added to the overall budget package submitted to the board next year, said Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman. The total includes new hires to reduce the workload on some current employees.

The recommendations follow a five-month study of how the transit authority manages fatigue among its workers. The Tri-State Oversight Committee, which monitors safety at the agency, partnered with Metro to conduct the study, which examined a 28-day sampling of Metrorail employees in the operations and maintenance departments. The employees’ identities were kept confidential.

The committee presented those findings to Metro’s board Thursday.

Unlike federal regulations that limit the hours a truck driver, railroad engineer or pilot can operate a vehicle, train or plane, there are no federal rules limiting the number of hours that transit employees can work.

The rules for the maximum hours an employee can work are set by the collective-bargaining agreement with the transit agency’s union, the study said. Each Metro department has “semiautonomous authority to interpret the provisions of the collective-bargaining agreement.”

The agreement requires that employees be given no less than eight hours off between shifts, according to the study. Metro departments generally have a daily 16-hour cap on total hours worked, although Metro records showed “shifts worked in excess of the 16-hour rule in every department evaluated,” the study said.

In 2009, the American Public Transportation Association released an industry standard, saying that train operators should work no more than “14 consecutive on-duty hours,” according to the report.

But that is a voluntary standard that doesn’t go into effect until January 2014. Sarles said Metro will adopt the standard for train operators by April 2014. He said that train operators rarely are found working longer hours than allowed and that 98 percent of them work less than 14-hour days.

Several board members raised concerns Thursday that Metro employees in safety-critical jobs can work a “de facto” 16-hour day and potentially work seven days a week, which, according to the analysis, can cause fatigue and accidents. They said the 14-hour cap might not go far enough.

“Would I want my daughter on a train or riding an escalator that’s been repaired by a person working 13, 14 hours a day? The answer is no,” said Michael Barnes, who represents Montgomery County on the board. “I think 14 hours is way too much personally. I don’t think I’ve worked on a job that I worked more than 12 hours a day.”

Watchdogs said they are watching what Metro will do on its policy regarding workers and fatigue.

“Every transit agency needs to foster a culture of safety across the board — from banning texting by train and bus operators to ensuring that transit workers have adequate rest to safely perform their duties,” Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff said Thursday after the report was presented to the transit board.

“There can be no compromise when it comes to the safety of the workers and the riding public,” he said.

After the presentation, Metro board member Mort Downey, a federal appointee who chairs the safety and security committee, said he envisions the cap as a “big step forward.

“Will it be the final answer? No,” Downey said.

He added that the financially troubled transit authority, where “money is always an issue,” will find a way to finance the changes.

Not doing it, he said, is “not a trade-off I’m ready to make.”

Dana Hedgpeth is the Washington Post’s lead reporter in covering the Metro rail and bus systems in the D.C. region and the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority (WMATA) that runs them.
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