Survey: Most Metro workers see safety violations, many do nothing about it

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 28, 2010; 11:17 PM

Only 10 percent of Metro employees said they had not witnessed a safety breach in the past year, according to an unprecedented safety survey completed in July by more than 9,300 workers. Almost 30 percent said they did not know if they had.

Metro released a summary of the results Thursday, although some of the findings had been announced earlier this month by Richard Sarles, Metro's interim general manager.

The survey was part of an effort to gauge Metro's "safety culture." Federal investigators probing the June 2009 Red Line crash said Metro's negligent attitude toward safety contributed to the accident.

According to the summary, the survey found that more than 30 percent of the Metro workers who had observed safety violations in the past year failed to report the problems, because they feared retaliation or doubted that Metro would fix them.

"There is a sense of futility," board member Jim Graham said.

The most common safety problem - identified by nearly 40 percent of respondents - was unsafe working conditions.

"We are required to perform tasks that are unsafe," said one comment from the survey. "There seems to be a total disregard for our well-being from the upper management," it said.

About 34 percent cited fears that reporting would provoke retaliation or negative consequences against them, while smaller numbers said they were afraid to raise safety breaches by senior employees and were reluctant to report people they knew.

Employees concerned about retaliation mostly worried that they would be ostracized by their peers, rather than lose their jobs or be demoted, said Scott Bohannon, general manager of Corporate Executive Board, which performed the survey and provided the summary.

Metro declined to immediately release information beyond what was in the summary, saying that would require a public records request.

Metro has been criticized by federal and state officials, transit experts and union leaders for communications breakdowns and a demoralized workforce that views the leadership as unresponsive.

Survey respondents reported widespread texting and cellphone use by employees operating Metro's trains, buses and other vehicles. Metro instituted a zero-tolerance policy last year; requiring the dismissal of bus and train operators for the first offense.

Overall, 22 percent of Metro employees had witnessed violations of the texting and cell phone policy, but the number rose to about 27 percent among Metrobus employees.

Graham, also a D.C. council member, asked Metro operations chief Dave Kubicek how many employees had been terminated for using cellphones, but Kubicek said he did not know.

The rule should be changed if it is not being enforced, Graham said. "If it's a dead letter, let's wipe it out," he said.

But Metro Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty said Metro is strengthening the policy, applying it to all vehicle operators - not just train operators and bus drivers - and planning an awareness campaign.

"Zero tolerance will remain," Dougherty said. The risk posed by distracted drivers is "too serious," he added.

Other common safety violations reported in the survey summary were the failure to use personal protective equipment and seat belts; 25 percent of bus employees reported the seat belt issue.

The Corporate Executive Board recommended that Metro take immediate steps to investigate safety incidents identified in the survey. Dougherty said that would include specific problems such as reports of signals that are not working in the rail system.

The company also called for Metro to encourage employees to report safety problems with an incentive program that will recognize exemplary behavior and by sharing safety success stories.

"These survey results provide a clear road map to develop a long-term, action-specific safety plan to reach our goal to make safety fundamental in our day-to-day operation," Metro Interim General Manager Richard Sarles said in a statement. "The plan itself will dovetail actions we already have taken to improve our safety culture."

On another safety matter, Dougherty said it would take until April 2014 to replace track circuits deemed at risk for the same malfunction that caused the last year's Red Line crash. It will cost Metro an estimated $60 million to replace the track circuits, he said.

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