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Survey finds Metro workers fear retaliation for reporting safety problems

Metro's budget and workforce for maintaining escalators and elevators have dropped relative to the growing number of machines, leading to numerous breakdowns and headaches.

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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.

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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.

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