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Metro is not properly tracking operator fatigue and medical issues, which affect safety, audit says

Report finds 11 areas in which Metro needs improvement to ensure train operators are fit for duty

A Red Line train arrives at Metro Center. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Metro can’t properly protect employees and riders because of inconsistencies in health-related testing, monitoring and shift scheduling for train operators, according to an audit Tuesday by the agency that oversees Metrorail safety.

The transit agency needs a standard process for drug and alcohol testing of train operators involved in crashes or safety violations, the Washington Metrorail Safety Commission report concluded. Metro also needs to ensure that all operators take enough days off to stay alert, while getting tested and treated for medical issues such as diabetes or sleep apnea, which can affect their ability to operate trains, the audit said.

The 44-page Audit of Fitness for Duty Programs report reviewed Metro’s ability to monitor train operator fatigue levels, test operators for impairment and make sure they meet physical standards required to operate trains. The report from the commission — an agency Congress created to keep tabs on rail safety — is the latest in recent months to find deficiencies in Metro’s safety-related protocols.

Because of a lack of consistent rules, standards and record-keeping, the audit said Metro “cannot reasonably ensure that its employees and contractors” who work dangerous jobs “are free from impairment that could cause incapacitation.” These issues, auditors say, have led to collisions and derailments within other rail systems, as well as a minor collision of trains in 2004 on the Red Line at the Woodley Park station.

The report found 11 areas in which Metro needs improvement to ensure operators are fit for duty. It also provided four recommendations for improvement, including ways to screen contractors and hold them to medical and physical standards. The commission gave Metro 30 days to develop a plan to address the audit’s findings.

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Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta said transit officials continue to review the audit and will respond with appropriate corrective action plans. He said the transit agency disagreed with several statements in the audit including allegations that the agency initially withheld transit police “testing information” from auditors. Jannetta said Metro would address those claims in a response.

Auditors assembled the report after interviews and reviews of documents and data gathered this year. The audit focused on three areas: the medical and physical health of operators, use of illegal and prescription drugs and alcohol, and operator alertness levels.

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Metro, the audit said, is not conducting regular physical examinations of operators as its policies require, raising the possibility that some are at risk of losing consciousness on the job with undiagnosed or untreated conditions, such as diabetes, hypertension and obstructive sleep apnea.

If employees are found with such conditions, the audit said, operators wouldn’t be forced to resign or transfer jobs because those conditions are treatable. The audit recommended physicals every other year to monitor for health-related issues.

The report also said the transit agency’s fatigue management policy, which limits the consecutive days and hours employees can work, depending on their roles, must make sure operators get at least one day off each week.

Although Metro does conduct drug and alcohol testing of employees, the audit said it lacks written criteria for when testing should occur. Metro also doesn’t consistently test operators and other employees involved in collisions or other emergencies as its policies mandate, the report said.

Follow-up and random screenings are not conducted, the audit said, while supervisors are not getting “reasonable suspicion” training required by federal regulations. Auditors said Metro had no evidence that it removes employees from service if they test positive for drugs and alcohol.

In August, a safety commission investigation cited Metro for not testing employees involved in a near-collision between a utility vehicle and work crew on Jan. 22 between the Georgia Avenue-Petworth and Fort Totten stations.

“In some instances, we see individuals who are involved in an incident being sent for testing and others in the same unit are not sent for testing,” Sharmila Samarasinghe, the commission’s chief operating officer, said during an August meeting of safety commissioners.

Merrill M. Mitler, a neuroscientist and former program director for sleep and circadian rhythms research at the National Institutes of Health, said issues raised in the audit are interconnected. Without physical exams, undetected medical conditions can go untreated. He said the lack of a strong fatigue policy can overwork operators and exacerbate health issues, while drug usage could be a sign that train operators are taking risks to stay alert.

Researchers say transit agencies sometimes ignore fatigue policies because crashes linked to fatigue can be eclipsed by other factors. The policies also can face opposition from workers and unions, who fear overtime shifts being taken away, as well as from short-staffed transit agencies.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s “most wanted list of transportation safety improvements” includes preventing transportation worker fatigue as something transit agencies should prioritize this year.

Creating a comprehensive policy to address operator fatigue and ensure workers have enough rest between shifts has been a goal of Metro in recent years. Although union officials said operators are restricted from working beyond hourly limits set in the union contract, Metro Chief Operating Officer Joe Leader has told Metro board members during meetings last year that trying to limit consecutive days worked has been a difficult discussion with Metro’s largest union.

But Ray Jackson, president of the local chapter of the Amalgamated Transit Union, said the transit agency is mischaracterizing those negotiations. He said the union supports policies that limit consecutive shifts, but it is Metro that calls on operators to work several days in a row during worker shortages.

The current union contract, Jackson said, attempts to limit employees from being overworked by requiring Metro to double an operator’s pay for time worked after six consecutive days. When Metro proposed a comprehensive fatigue policy, Jackson accused the agency of pushing to get rid of the double-pay measure.

“Every fatigue policy they showed us got rid of that penalty pay,” Jackson said. “[Metro] at any given time can hire enough people so that we don’t have to work any overtime.”

The American Public Transportation Association sets a guideline of having train operators work no more than six consecutive days, according to the safety commission audit.

“Working an excessive number of consecutive days increases mental fatigue and increases the risk that employees will need to complete other nonwork tasks such as food shopping and handling family issues during time that they need to be sleeping,” the audit said.