SOFA LogoA UTU-member conductor employed by Canadian Pacific in LaCrosse, Wis., suffered a severe injury – being pinned beneath a freight car that derailed and tipped over — during a switching operation Sept. 5. The 43-year-old conductor had less than one year of service.

During the first six months of 2011, 37 serious injuries occurred during switching operations, resulting in three fatalities and eight amputations, according to the Federal Railroad Administration.

These accidents emphasize that there is no more dangerous civilian occupation than working in a railroad switching yard, where accidents too often kill, maim and end careers.

Yard safety requires situational awareness, which is a state of mind coupled with teamwork, communication and uninterrupted attention to the task at hand.

To combat yard fatalities and career-ending injuries, the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis (SOFA) Working Group was formed in 1998.

It is a peer review group comprised of representatives from labor, management and the Federal Railroad Administration — all collaborating to bring railroaders home in one piece.

SOFA’s five lifesaving tips that can save yours:

* Secure all equipment before action is taken.

* Protect employees against moving equipment.

* Discuss safety at the beginning of a job or when work changes.

* Communicate before action is taken.

* Mentor less experienced employees to perform service safely.

The SOFA Working Group also warns of special switching hazards:

* Close clearances

* Shoving movements

* Unsecured cars

* Free rolling rail cars

* Exposure to mainline trains

* Tripping, slipping or falling

* Unexpected movement of cars

* Adverse environmental conditions

* Equipment defects

* Motor vehicles or loading devices

* Drugs and alcohol

The SOFA Working Group’s lifesaving tips are proven to reduce your risk of a career-ending injury or death while on the job.

The UTU is represented in the SOFA group by Louisiana State Legislative Director Gary Devall, Minnesota State Legislative Director Phil Qualy and Kansas State Legislative Director Ty Dragoo.

To view recent SOFA Working Group reports, and advisories related to inexperienced employees, close clearances, industrial track hazards, job briefings and mainline train hazards, click on the following link:

The UTU also has a Rail Safety Task Force charged with creating action alerts to reduce rail-employee risk while on the job.

Leading the task force is UTU Arizona State Legislative Director Greg Hynes, who is assisted by UTU Arkansas State Legislative Director Steve Evans and Michigan State Legislative Director Jerry Gibson.

The task force works with UTU state legislative directors, UTU general chairpersons, the FRA and carriers in seeking to identify and communicate best practices and techniques to improve situational awareness and keep situational awareness at its highest level.

For more information on the UTU Rail Safety Task Force, and to view its advisories, click on the following link:

As the recession takes its toll, an increased rail safety threat is emerging – the theft of rail spikes and tie plates from active railroad lines.

In Woodbine, N.J., last week, police arrested four men suspected of stealing spikes and tie plates from five miles of New Jersey Transit track — used by Cape May Seashore Lines for passenger and freight operations — and selling the metal for scrap, reports the Cape May Herald newspaper.

It’s just something else rail employees must be on the lookout for – an additional aspect of situational awareness that ensures train and engine crews go home to their families in one piece.