Metro employees overworked, fatigued, report says

November 11, 2011

Metrorail employees in safety-critical jobs — including train operators, supervisors and maintenance technicians — are working longer hours than allowed, a workload that a joint analysis says could lead to fatigue and accidents.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee (TOC), which monitors safety at Metro, partnered with the transit authority for five months to study how it manages fatigue among its employees. The results are to be presented Thursday to Metro’s board of directors.

According to a copy of the final report, Metro employees in safety-critical jobs work a “de facto” 16-hour day maximum, and there are no limits on the number of consecutive days an employee works.

The study analyzed a 28-day sample of Metrorail employees in the operations and maintenance departments. The employees’ identities were kept confidential.

One employee in Metro’s automated train control division said he was “constantly fixing mistakes” made by his colleagues and “attributed the poor work quality,” in part, to fatigue.

Dan Stessel, Metro’s chief spokesman, wrote Friday in an e-mail that the report will be discussed at Thursday’s safety and security committee meeting but that changes could still be made. “We will defer comment until the final report is presented to the committee,” Stessel wrote.

Matt Bassett, TOC chairman, declined to comment until he makes his presentation to the board.

The study team met with Metro supervisors, train operators, controllers, rail car and electrical power systems maintenance personnel, automatic train control and track maintenance technicians and elevator and escalator mechanics. The report said Metro had 2,662 safety-critical positions with 212 vacancies, at the time of the study.

Pressure to work overtime

Two reasons employees work long hours, the study found, is that workers want to earn overtime and Metro needs to quickly fix the deteriorating rail system.

Employees in several departments reported working overtime, in part, to boost their retirement benefits, which are based on their top three highest-producing years. Some said they felt pressure to do work shifts because of retirements, injuries, vacancies or vacations in their departments and a push to meet the needs of Metro’s aggressive $5 billion capital improvement plan, which involves major track work on weekends.

In two cases, an employee in the heavy equipment department worked 112 hours in one week — or 16-hour shifts for seven days in a row, according to the study. One manager in the track and structure division said his crew had worked the “last 22 weekends in a row.”

More than a quarter of all shifts in the transit system’s power department were 16 hours. As of Sept. 30, the report said, the department had 259 employees with 11 vacancies.

Although rail operators were the “least likely of all job categories analyzed to work a 16-hour day,” one in 22 shifts lasted more than 14 hours, according to the report. In some isolated cases, train operators worked more than 80 hours a week, including one who worked 95 hours in July.

Metro board member Mort Downey, a federal appointee who chairs the safety and security committee, said Thursday that he had not seen the report but that he has long been concerned about the hours worked by Metro employees who operate trains and perform other safety-critical jobs.

“Unlike somebody who might be intoxicated, people don’t realize they reach a point where they’re fatigued and their judgment is clouded,” Downey said.

“It is incumbent upon us to put in place guidelines on how many hours people work and how many hours of rest they need,” he said. “This is one way to prevent bad things from happening.”

In 2004, a train rolled back and hit a parked train at Woodley Park. Some passengers suffered minor injuries. An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board revealed the operator was fatigued and had “likely fallen asleep at the controls.”

No federal limits on hours

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 transit employees can work.

Keith Holloway, an NTSB spokesman, wrote Friday in an e-mail that the agency had no comment on the report but that it is “concerned about fatigue and the impact that it can have on transportation safety.”

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. It also does not apply to workers who do inspections or maintenance or help run control centers.

At Metro, 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 “semi-autonomous 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 department’s generally have a daily 16-hour “cap” on total hours worked, even though Metro records showed “shifts worked in excess of the 16-hour rule in every department evaluated,” the study said.

Jackie Jeter, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689, which represents Metro employees, said that the “maximum employee hours are set” by the transit agency.

“They have the control of the number of hours that an employee works,” she said. “They make overtime assignments that can be two hours, four hours or 12 hours long. That is up to the manager.”

The study revealed that workers in Metro’s automated train control division, which is responsible for inspecting and running the signal system that moves trains, “expressed some of the highest degrees of concern about fatigue.”

The employees said the system’s regular maintenance and the push for repairs were “disproportionate to the available personnel resources,” noting that their department has 212 employees with 30 vacancies as of Sept. 30.

“You have to choose between your life and your money,” one employee said.

At least 53 times in July, a safety-critical employee in the division worked more than 70 hours, the study said.

In Metro’s division that maintains and inspects the electrical systems for the rail line, one supervisor said he felt that there was a correlation between the amount of overtime worked and the 40 accidents in one year that involved vehicles used in inspecting and maintaining electrical systems, according to the study. It was later determined that 26 of the accidents could have been prevented, the report said.

“What I remember about that year was that overtime was through the roof,” the supervisor said.

Recruitment plan underway

Jeter said she is concerned about how the workload affects employees’ lives.

“I know it takes away from their families,” she said. “At the end of the day, they are fatigued. The amount of repairs that have to be done now requires a lot of hours, but I also say there is no other way the repairs are going to be done to the railroad without people doing it.”

Metro has mandatory computer-based fatigue training for “all safety-sensitive [rail] employees,” but the study discovered that “most employees . . . were not aware that such a program existed or that its completion was required of them.”

Solving the fatigue problem, Downey said, will require hiring more people. On Monday, Metro is holding a recruitment effort to attract former and current military personnel for positions. Already, 500 people have registered for the event.

“It will require having more people on the payroll if you’re going to have less hours of work from people when they shouldn’t be working,” Downey said.

Where will the cash-strapped agency find the money for new hires?

“We’ll figure it out,” Downey said.

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