Fatigue: A Continuing Problem in the Railroad Industry

Our economy runs twenty-four hours a day. Businesses operate round- the-clock to keep up with and gain on competitors. Competitive pressures in our manufacturing and service economies require corporations and businesses to push their people and equipment relentlessly to maximize efficiency and profit. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the railroad industry. Unfortunately, often lost in the equation is an undeniable fact. Unlike machinery that can be ruthlessly exploited to optimize efficiency, human beings are not biologically designed to work around-the-clock, to shift sleep and work schedules, or to work irregular or extended hours. When railroads disregard the necessity of adequate rest and sound sleep, serious injuries, including death, and major property damage will result. The single largest cause of human error in round-the-clock operations is employee fatigue. Despite this, railroads have merely paid lip service to the saying that “people are our most important asset.”

The railroad industry is particularly susceptible to the risk of injury and property damage caused by human fatigue and loss of attentiveness. This susceptibility is the result of several factors that distinguish the working conditions faced by railroaders from those of other occupations. Railroading is a round-the-clock business. Railroads support businesses that depend upon the timely shipment of goods and products across the nation. The ability to ship 24 hours a day is the railroads’ reason for being. Unfortunately, this inevitably results in irregular hours of work and long shifts, often with little notice. The unpredictability of on-duty times for railroad employees is viewed as the major drawback of railroad employment. Being chained to the telephone or beeper disrupts an employee’s family life, and the lack of regular rest periods is a prime cause of fatigue.

The federal government has recognized that employee fatigue may cause accidents. All railroaders are subject to the Federal Hours of Service Law which sets the maximum time employees may be on duty without relief, and the minimum time employees must be off duty between assignments. Originally, the law prohibited railroaders from being on duty in excess of 16 consecutive hours. After 16 hours on duty, a road crew was legally obligated to stop working. In the 1970’s this law was changed to shorten the maximum time from 16 to 12 hours. This limit remains in effect today.

As important as this law is, it still does not go far enough. An employee’s 12-hour period commences with the on-duty time. This is the time that the employee is scheduled to go on duty, not the time that the railroader receives the call. Once a road crew is off eight hours or longer, the crew is considered “fully rested” and may again work 12 consecutive hours. Railroaders may also be called “on their rest.” This means that they go on duty exactly eight hours after they “tie up” or go formally off duty. This significantly limits the rest available because in those eight hours the employee has to shower, eat, sleep, and prepare to go on duty again. Regulation of hours of work and rest through federal law has not adequately taken into account workers’ needs.

Other approaches, including disciplinary action and the use of fail-safe technology to combat fatigue have also been tried; however, these have not met with greater success than that resulting from regulations of hours of work and rest, because none has addressed the basic problem.

Railroaders must constantly be alert to the potential dangers of workplace fatigue. Railroaders are in control of, or in close proximity to, thousands of tons of equipment each and every second of their shift. Momentary bouts of fatigue can result in life-altering injury or death. Railroaders must be active in bringing to their company’s attention the problem of workplace fatigue. Let your U.S. Senators and Representatives know of your concerns so more realistic and practical hours of service laws can be passed.

The FELA lawyers of Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC invite you to contact their office for further discussion of this topic. This article is designed for general information only and should be considered neither formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer client relationship.