Saturday, December 02, 2006

Bravo! NTSB Chairman

By Confined Space cub reporter, Celeste Monforton.


That’s the term used this week by Mark Rosenker, the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), upon learning that a third subway worker was struck and killed by a WMATA train. Mr. Leslie A Cherry Jr., 52, was inspecting the tracks with a co-worker on Thursday morning, when a 39 MPH-subway train hit them from behind. A co-worker said Mr. Cherry was "probably one of the most safety-conscious track walkers we had."

Two other veteran Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) subway employees were killed in the same way, one in October 2005 and another in May 2006. Three workers in 13 months is “UNACCEPTABLE.” With only 30 workers employed by WMATA to inspect the tracks, 3 out of 30 employees—a fatality rate of 10 percent--- is unacceptable, alarming and intolerable. Bravo! Chairman Rosenker for saying it.

But, WMATA Board member (and D.C. Councilman) Jim Graham strongly objected to Rosenker’s remark:
“This is not the proper role for the NTSB, taking potshots like this. We want them to go through a full, deliberative, unvarnished process of investigation and get to the bottom of this. This doesn't contribute to that type of investigation."
Baloney. Mr. Graham sounds just like other employers and their PR firms who, in the wake of employee deaths, try to elevate themselves above the raw situation. When the wounds of the deceased, their co-workers and families are naturally inflamed (and rightfully so) it’s more comfortable for employers and their defenders to insulate themselves and call for the methodical, “deliberative” and “unvarnished” process.

Well, sometimes, it’s justified for public officials to say, “Hey, I’m mad as hell” about this. Do such statements tarnish the investigation? No. It simply shows that the NTSB chairman is a human being, a sympathetic individual, and when people are injured or killed, or when management safety systems clearly aren’t working, he shows his emotion. Frankly, we need a few more like Mr. Rosenker in charge of investigatory agencies. Besides, the NTSB chairman merely said the WMATA situation is “unacceptable.” That’s a true statement. It is unacceptable.

I decided to check the WMATA’s website to see what kind of information they have posted about the latest fatality. (Just like I check International Coal Group’s, BP’s and other company sites after workplace disasters at their facilities.) WMATA has a brief 230-word statement on their site, noting the “incident” is under investigation. The only real news in their press release is “the train operator, a Metro employee since 1999, was given routine drug and alcohol tests.” I’m sure that brought a smile to the face of advocates of mandatory worker drug-testing, like Congressman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) and the new head of WV’s Office of Miners Health Safety and Training, Ron Wooten. Pointing the finger of blame on the train operator will certainly be more palatable for WMATA’s Board of Directors than being forced to acknowledge their safety program is unacceptable.

Note: After Metro employee Jong Won Lee was killed last May, WMATA attempted to put the blame on Lee, himself. More on that here. The NTSB has not yet finished the Lee investigation. -- JB