Rail safety concerns voiced by UTU members

July 19, 2010

Train and engine workers are the eyes and ears of railroads — the first to spot trouble, and the first to suffer when trouble occurs.

On railroads, trouble too often means career-ending injuries and death.

The UTU Rail Safety Task Force was created by UTU International President Mike Futhey to develop strategies to reduce rail-employee risk while on the job. Members include Arizona State Legislative Director Greg Hynes, Arkansas State Legislative Director Steve Evans and Michigan State Legislative Director Jerry Gibson.

Earlier this year, the task force asked UTU members to share their workplace concerns. The member survey revealed overwhelmingly that fatigue, harassment and intimidation are distracting members from situational awareness and placing them in harm’s way.

The comments, below, have been culled from some 1,300 member responses. Some have been edited to correct grammar and spelling, and to remove names of railroads and individuals.

President Futhey will be sharing these member comments with carrier officials. The national legislative office will be sharing them with FRA officials.

Here is a sample of comments from UTU members:

We have an increased burden thinking of what will happen to our home and family because of harassment and constant operational testing. It affects everyone when a few easy targets are harassed.

The harassment has to stop. You cannot do your job without worrying about these officials.

An alarming number of workers are in fear of losing their jobs. Harassment is now the number-one concern in the discharge of duty.

The number-one problem is horrendous lineups. I would say if the carrier could get a handle on when they run trains, members could get properly rested to go work.

Intimidation is the prime motivator for these new young managers, who have zero clues as to how a conductor/trainman performs his or her tasks.

I have never seen any other companies harass and retaliate against employees like the railroad. They got the military beat.

Biggest safety issue? Bad lineups, bad lineups, bad lineups.

I always tell friends or strangers when asked about employment, to look elsewhere. I tell them about the working environment that is almost unbearable. The carrier is all about intimidation.

How can you work safely if you know they are watching you perform your work? That person is taking your mind off your job.

If you take too long to get out of the yard you have just put a target on your back and they will try to fire you.

I have never worked in industry with so much aggression, from management toward its employees.

Lineups are our biggest concern. Deadheads not being in the lineup before they are called causes many people to go to work without being rested.

The policy of the carrier is to intimidate, harass and assess capricious discipline on all its employees. We have gone from about three investigations last year at my location to over 20, just in the last three months.

The issue with rest isn’t time off; it is knowing when you are going to work.

The carrier uses testing to discipline and to dismiss, not for training.

Harassment is daily, and when you go to work you always wonder if you will make it through the day and have a job the next.

It’s bad when you’re out doing your job as safely as you can do it and wondering if a trainmaster or official is hiding behind the trees or bushes to try to catch you doing something wrong.

The carrier follows you around, hiding in the bushes, waiting for you to break a rule.

I can only figure when I’m going to work about 10 percent of the time.

Their safety program is based on nothing more than threats, harassment and intimidation.

Testing is so rampant that we’re afraid to look back around a curve for fear of missing a yellow board or other test.

If it takes too long to do a job safely the carrier will start to impose operational testing and follow employees around.

Managers frequently change their stories and make their stories fit the definition of a failure if they find out that the initial operations test failure in the field was not a valid failure under the written rule.

They interpret rules and assess failures based on their interpretation rather than what the rule states in black and white in the General Code of Operating Rules. This environment has caused a workplace that is less safe because of employees being more concerned about how rules will be interpreted.

The engine cab is our office, and they are never cleaned! This is basic; here is where it starts.

Efficiency tests in our terminal have increased, with an increasing number of petty failures.

Carrier intimidation creates animosity between crewmembers.

It affects everyone when a few easy targets are harassed.

They don’t care about our safety; it is all about the budget.

Many incidents, injuries and/or fatalities occur during the final portion of our duty hours. Taking into account fatigue issues, “running for the quit” is a common and dangerous practice.

Some carrier officers are very disrespectful.

It is pretty bad when you feel the need to look over your shoulder constantly.

They change jobs, starting times, crew sizes at will without regard to the men and women on the front lines. It would be nice to discuss upcoming changes rather than have them shoved down our throats without any input from the members who perform the service.

Many times I would be first out on the same extra board for more than 16 hours, and as soon as I try to get more rest the call comes in for a 12-hour run out of town. It’s a lineup for an accident.

Twelve hours off at the other end of my run is too long. I can only sleep four or five hours and then I stay awake, waiting for a call. By the time I go to work I am tired again.

When I am writing in my signal awareness form all the info the company wants, I am not looking up and around to see any unforeseen or possibly a event that could be prevented. We need more time looking instead of writing with head down, potentially missing or seeing late an important situation arising ahead of the train.

It appears carrier officials only want employees to comply with rules when they are watching/testing.

Rest is a problem on account of laying over 18 to 30 hours at away-from-home terminal. When you lay around a motel that long you are wore out.

Long lay-in times between shifts in through freight pools and extra lists is the number-one cause of fatigue in the rail industry and the carriers are increasing those times to break consecutive days worked.

The biggest safety issue in my opinion is the lack of training. There are too many people forced to do their jobs without the adequate experience to do it.

Unfortunately there is no rule or test for common sense.

All we do is watch the computer because we are constantly run around by deadhead crews while we are waiting for a train.

Affecting workplace safety is the revolving-door rulebook that changes daily.

I have been tested 21 times, had four failures, with 132 different rules, and not once has an officer ever said that we were doing a good job.

I believe there needs to be much better training on territory qualifications.

The only time a switch gets oiled or adjusted is if someone calls it in as being hard to throw. If one person were to call all of them in, management would think they are whining.

There is nothing wrong with listing a train’s movement in station order on the line it is running on ahead of other trains even if it will get run-around enroute at some point, which should give a better idea when we might be going to work.

Employees feel threatened by mass confusion and constant change, which leads to loss of focus and bitterness.

Many trainmasters have little knowledge of railroading beyond their limited
classroom training. They have a “gotcha” attitude that creates an environment that is adversarial rather than cooperative.

Not knowing when I am going to work and not knowing when to get my rest is a definite safety hazard. Usually both of us on the crew are equally tired.

Some test to get it done and some keep at it until they find something.

Some don’t understand the rule they are watching us for. We never have a rules or safety class.

The piling on of new rules and frivolous demands are distractions in themselves.

While working, most members of our crew look for testing, not actual safety hazards. This is due to managers wanting us to fail.

Production quotas always take priority in the daily switching operation. When a defect is reported a manager evaluates the problem and says it’s okay to use anyway.

Trash and tripping hazards everywhere.

I always have to be thinking about if they are hiding in the weeds.

I’m not perfect by any means, but the rulebook is thicker than the Bible! Even someone who tries to work by these rules cannot possibly do so.

The carrier does not allow power naps. I have been with engineers that stayed awake in sidings and at stop signals only to have them have a hard time staying awake finishing the trip.

Our train lineup is not accurate enough for us to plan our rest.

I have noticed when I report unsafe conditions on the hotline, the carrier at times shows the condition to be corrected, when in actuality it really is not a true statement. It only looks good when someone is reading the reports.

It is the inability to plan our rest that creates the danger.

An employee who is always looking over his shoulder for a company officer hiding in the bushes trying to find you breaking a minor rule, especially a young employee, will never work safe and will never be focused on his job and will be danger to himself and others.

I heard a first line supervisor say don’t drag the job or you will get a failure.

My biggest concern is when I get called for a job I’ve never done and the carrier denies me a pilot. It’s very dangerous being on a job in an unknown area for the first time.

The changing of the lineup happens at one time or another almost each day. This seems to be, for me, the most crucial element of not being able to get proper rest before having to report for duty, especially at the away-from-home terminal.

Dispatchers will ask how long a task will take and want a time commitment. The company wants us to hurry, yet the word “hurry” isn’t anywhere in the rulebook.

As a yardmaster the most unsafe thing we do is work while we are tired. Yardmasters do not fall under the hours-of-service law. We are required to double through to a second shift if nobody else is available. This means we are required to sit in the same location, without the ability to leave, for 16 straight hours.

I have seen engines reported for defects at least five times in the last month yet no one knows anything about it and your ordered to just take it because “there is no one here that can fix it.”

Biggest distraction is conductor’s log. Because penalty for multiple missing entries is so severe it takes precedence when, at times, situational awareness would dictate focus in other job areas.

Even when I report safety issues it seems that the carrier doesn’t address them in a timely manner.

Good railroaders need mentoring. Give me a chance to develop these young, talented railroaders. When they are ready, let their peers decide.

The things that we most often are being tested on are minor rules infractions. This puts a great level of stress on the employee.

Far too many officers have no experience doing real railroad work yet are told to tell us what to do and how to do it. Far too often we are asked to operate unsafely because they really do not understand what is happening.

At times I feel forced to hurry by company officials that stand and watch and, at times, hide and watch. The threat of constantly being disciplined is extremely distracting.

There have been too many changes in rules and too many different interpretations by company officers, so even though I might think I’m complying some officer might not.

It seems that managers try to get creative to compete with the knowledge of either the employee or another manager. I often find myself looking, nervously around, for tricky managers rather than focusing on the task at hand.

We are more concerned about not missing a little step in the procedure and losing our job than the job at hand or safety.

Way too much rushing you out the door when you get to work. No time to update time books, get operating bulletins, job briefings, etc. Every day is the same story. The second you walk in the door “we need you to get going right away….gotta get this train out and moving.”

Having a trainmaster hover over me while I look over my train papers or utilize the bathroom is just ridiculous.

Biggest problem is being watched by inexperienced supervisors.

The morale has never been so low and lack of truly experienced carrier officers so high.

When I report issues, I get the feeling they do not really care until somebody gets hurt.

We need bosses to tell us when they see us doing something wrong, instead of trying to fire us.

We are tested constantly and are treated with no respect whatsoever.

The last rule added to test brake effectiveness is a good example. It may work well for road trains left in a pass, but working trains, locals to be specific, are really hampered by the rule, and in some cases you don’t have enough cars to place brakes on to hold the balance of the train that is going to cut away. I was told to use my railroad experience in such cases. The rulebook is used only when it is convenient to the carrier.

This is my 35th year on the railroad and I have been in a constant state of unrest for practically the whole time. I’m not sure when anyone will realize I am the only person that can tell you when I’m tired. No amount of regulating, policymaking or rulemaking will ever change that fact.

I love my job. I want to work safe, but the company keeps saying that we are taking too much time.

Why is it that every time a FRA official comes onto any carrier property, they are always joined at the hip by one or more carrier officials? They never come on property with union or state legislative officials to converse with crews.

One of the most dangerous things is wide-body engines that have the angle cock on the head-end on the engineer’s side. I’m constantly climbing over these engines to turn the angle cock just to climb back over to turn an angle cock on cars I’m switching. On the road you have to go to the live track side to get to these angle cocks.

I feel that there is a greater pressure on first-line supervisors to find failures than to promote safety.

Click here to see a summary, in percentage terms, of member safety concerns.

Also, the UTU Rail Safety Task Force has its own Web page, accessible at www.utu.org by clicking on the red “Rail Safety Task Force” button.

 July 19, 2010