WASHINGTON — The Federal Railroad Administration will soon publish final rules instituting conductor certification and imposing new hours-of-service limitations on intercity passenger-train and commuter employees in safety sensitive positions.

FRA Associate Administrator for Safety Jo Strang made the announcement at the UTU’s regional meeting June 21 in San Antonio, Texas.

She observed that since former UTU Illinois State Legislative Director Joe Szabo became FRA administrator, the partnership between the UTU and the FRA in seeking improved workplace safety “has certainly been strengthened.”

Conductor certification, which becomes effective Jan. 1, 2012, “recognizes the level of professionalism required by our conductors today,” Strang said.

A notice of proposed rulemaking on conductor certification was published in November and is the product of a collaborative effort through the FRA’s Rail Safety Advisory Committee, which includes carriers, rail labor and the FRA.

UTU members serving on the RSAC Conductor Certification Working Group include Local 1470 Chairperson David Brooks, General Chairperson (CSX, GO 049) John Lesniewski, Local 538 Legislative Rep Ron Parsons, Local 645 Local Chairperson Vinnie Tessitore, National Legislative Director James Stem, Alternate National Legislative Director John Risch, and UTU safety consultant Larry Mann.

Strang said the passenger hours-of-service regulation will apply sleep science and fatigue management to railroad hours-of-service, “which is the first time in our industry’s history that this has been done. It recognizes the inherent differences between freight and passenger service.”

For example, intercity passenger and commuter railroads operate on fixed schedules. Commuter railroads operate primarily during daylight hours, and most commuter employees return to their home terminals every night.

The passenger hours-of-service regulation will “balance the need to manage fatigue with the need to maximize income,” Strang said. “The rule also recognizes the significant safety contribution that a defined start time has for the employees involved. When the employee knows when they must report for service, they can manage the necessary lifestyle adjustments. The outstanding safety record of our passenger and commuter rail operations is an excellent example of just what it means to have a regular start time.”

Strang also mentioned risk reduction programs, acknowledging that their FRA-sponsored implementation on some railroads “have earned a bad reputation. Let me be clear about FRA’s viewpoint,” Strang said. “Building strong safety cultures can only be accomplished through the establishment and nurturing of voluntary risk mitigation policies and procedures — setting realistic benchmarks and milestones, and favoring constructive corrective behavior over punitive discipline. To be clear, both railroads and labor have to define boundaries since compliance with the rules is at the heart of safety.

“Railroads have had the same culture for 180 years,” Strang said. “We have been trying to change it for five years.”

By FRA Associate Administrator for Safety Jo Strang

The Federal Railroad Administration’s Risk Reduction Program is a voluntary industry-wide initiative to reduce accidents and injuries and build a strong safety culture by expanding the toolkit to analyze and manage risk.

Eventually, these assessments will complement other programs such as safety inspections of railcars and injury reporting.

We are currently drafting a regulation requiring railroads to develop comprehensive risk reduction programs.

The FRA Risk Reduction Program affects every railroader through timely reporting of employee injuries and illnesses.

Additionally, an FRA team is collecting data on current practices and is seeking ways to prevent harassment and intimidation of injured railroad employees.

The data is collected from FRA complaint and enforcement records and directly from rail labor organizations.

The FRA also is working with outside sources, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to gain a clearer understanding of that agency’s whistle-blower regulation for railroad employees, and other factors that can contribute to solving harassment problems.

Using what they have learned, our Risk Reduction Program team conducted numerous presentations for UTU members on their rights regarding work-related injuries. The team learned a tremendous amount about current conditions railroad employees face daily.

The FRA also is strongly encouraging railroads to take actions that remove the punitive policies and practices that invite or induce retaliatory harassment and intimidation.

Amtrak is one railroad that has taken strides in this direction.

In implementing its Safe 2 Safer program, Amtrak has taken positive steps to improve its safety culture. The FRA Risk Reduction Program team noted that, as a result, the number of injuries reported by Amtrak employees has risen as expected, and the number of OSHA whistle-blower cases reported by employees has decreased.

The FRA hopes this indicates that injured Amtrak employees are now seeking and receiving appropriate care; and that other railroads will learn from Amtrak’s success and implement similar programs.

The FRA appreciates the UTU’s assistance in providing this invaluable data and input to the investigation team. When and where the team is successful in mitigating risks and hazards identified, safety is improved for railroad employees and the public.

An Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking was published in the Federal Register in December, and we are currently reviewing the comments received. However, in order to obtain as much stakeholder input as possible, we plan to conduct a public hearing.

In the meantime, we would appreciate receiving comments and suggestions from UTU members, which should be sent to the UTU National Legislative Office in Washington, D.C., which will collect and forward them to the FRA’S Risk Reduction Program team.

Thank you for your involvement in building a strong rail safety culture.