Tuesday, June 14, 2005

'Turning and Burning' and Asleep on the Job? Fire Their Asses, Right?

With all we're learning about the functioning of the human body and how work organization (including hours of work) affect human attentiveness, it never ceases to amaze me that employers are still so successful at blaming workers for what is obviously an organizational failure of management systems.
A freight train conductor blamed for a crash that killed three Metrolink passengers and injured more than 260 in Placentia three years ago was tired after weeks of long hours and erratic sleep, attorneys say, citing sworn statements taken for dozens of lawsuits.


The attorneys, who represent the injured Metrolink passengers, cite the sworn depositions of conductor Dean E. Tacoronte, 41, and engineer Darrell W. Wells, 51. Both were fired by Burlington Northern, which blamed their inattentiveness for the accident in which their mile-long freight train plowed head-on into a stopped Metrolink train the morning of April 23, 2002.

"Me and Darrell, we were both tired that day," Tacoronte said in his deposition. He had worked 29 days straight in the weeks before the crash. "We were real, real busy.... I worked all the time."

"Turning and burning," was how he described his routine.
I hate to repeat myself all the time, but until people (particularly employers) stop doing stupid things like neglecting the real root causes of accidents and firing workers so they look like they're taking decisive action, I have no choice.

This is what I wrote previously about fatigue on the rails:

As happens in so many other accident investigation, the root causes of these problems have been covered by conclusions that essentially blame the worker for falling asleep or "poor judgment, miscommunication and failure to follow operating procedures — errors that experts say can be triggered by fatigue."The root cause of the fatigue is not careless workers, but scheduling problems:

A 1997 survey of more than 1,500 freight crew members by the North American rail Alertness Partnership — a group of industry, government and union officials — found that about 80% had reported to work while tired, extremely tired or exhausted.

Though fatigue can affect passenger train crews, it is primarily a problem for the 40,000 to 45,000 engineers, brake operators and conductors assigned to unscheduled freight service.

Many put in 60 to 70 hours a week, sometimes more. They can be called to work any time during the day or night, constantly disrupting their sleep patterns.The irregular shifts often place bleary-eyed crews at the controls between 3 and 6 a.m., when experts say the body's natural circadian rhythm produces maximum drowsiness.

Engineers, brake operators and conductors liken on-the-job fatigue to being in a constant state of jet lag."There is no set rest schedule. It changes all the time, and it is hard to adjust," said Doug Armstrong of Huntington Beach, a veteran Union Pacific engineer who often works 12-hour days, six days a week. "People have a normal rest cycle, but a railroad is anything but normal."

And the problem is that there are antiquated laws, in this case, the 98 year old federal Hours of Service Act. The act requires train operators to have 8 hours off, but that doesn't allow for commuting, family obligations, meals -- as well as adquate sleep. In addition, it's legal for engineers, conductors and brake operators to work 432 hours a month, as opposed to truckers who are allowed to drive no more than 260 hours.

This isn't just a problem of fairness and justice. The problem with ignoring the root causes of accidents (poor scheduling, forced fatigue, etc.) is that you can fire the tired workers, and then you can fire the next workers who fall asleep, and on and on, but you'll never be preventing the problem from happening over and over again. Because humans need to sleep or they make mistakes, and no amount of discipline or punishment will ever solve that problem.