Survey finds Metro workers fear retaliation for reporting safety problems

By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 30, 2010; 7:32 PM

A recent survey to assess Metro's "safety culture" found that 60 percent of the agency's employees witnessed a safety concern or violation in the past year but that 30 percent of them did not report it, often because they feared repercussions, Metro's interim general manager told the agency's board of directors Thursday.

Many who said they didn't report problems said they feared doing so would make it difficult to continue working with their peers and that the transit agency would not fix the safety problem or protect them from retaliation.

The most common concern was "unsafe working conditions," interim General Manager Richard Sarles told the board during its monthly meeting.

Mid-level managers were the most positive about the agency's safety focus, he said.

"There will not be a one-size-fits-all solution or approach to solving issues with our safety culture," Sarles said.

Metro's safety culture was a major target of the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation of the fatal June 2009 Red Line crash. The board found that Metro's attention to safety was lax throughout all levels of the agency. The specific cause of the crash, it said, was a failure of the automatic train-control system, which did not detect one train, causing another to travel toward it at full speed.

Sarles said he would release the survey's full results this month. He said that Metro managers have been trying to encourage employees to speak up about safety problems and that the agency is working with union leaders to develop ways for employees to report "near misses" without facing punishment.

To fulfill another NTSB recommendation, the board established a committee to enhance its oversight of safety and security issues and voted unanimously to add safety to the agency's mission statement. Until Thursday, the mission statement said Metro provides "the nation's best transit service." It now reads: "Metro operates and maintains a safe, reliable and effective transit system that enhances mobility, improves the quality of life and stimulates economic development in the Washington Metropolitan area."

Including safety in the mission statement will "clarify that safety is a top priority for the agency," board member Christopher Zimmerman said.

Metro passengers have said that their safety and health are most often compromised by broken escalators and elevators that require crowds of people to face lengthy climbs.

A recent independent analysis of Metro's maintenance program found that the agency needed more effective training to ensure that workers follow the agency's maintenance standards, Sarles said.

Problems the analysis found included "basic housekeeping" issues, he said, such as workers lubricating oily, gritty chains without first cleaning them.

"Of course, this type of shortcut catches up with us later," Sarles said.

In other news, board members said they were discussing how the agency will transition to technology that would allow passengers to pay rail and bus fares with a credit or debit card. That would be allowed through an upgrade of the SmarTrip system, which uses proprietary technology that is no longer manufactured. Metro has enough computer chips to issue new SmarTrip cards for two more years, officials said.

The new system would accommodate SmarTrip cards, officials said.

"It's going to be a long transition, and our SmarTrip cards will be around for quite a while," Board Chairman Peter Benjamin said.

The board also voted to solicit proposals for a $250,000 contract for a suicide prevention program that would train bus drivers, train operators and supervisors in how to spot suicidal people and intervene before they act. The one-year contract also would include a program to educate passengers about the problem.

The number of people committing suicide in the Metro system, mainly by jumping in front of trains, has risen in recent years, according to Metro, to 11 last year. There have been four this year.

Board members said Metro's safety issues hit close to home Thursday when an alternate board member, Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille, fell at the Braddock Road station while boarding a Yellow Line train on his way to the meeting.

Euille said he slipped on wet platform tiles, injuring his kneecap and damaging a ligament. He said doctors told him he might need surgery.

Euille said he thinks it's "worth exploring" whether Metro should change the "slick tiles" at station platforms to a rougher surface that would provide more traction.

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