Rail Worker Fatigue: Tired, and working the trains
Published: June 21, 2008
Madison County, IL: A tired worker is a threat to himself as well as
those he serves. In the case of a railway worker diagnosed with
Circadian Rhythm Sleep Disorder (CRSD), the impairment from lack of
sleep could carry significant consequences, and falls within the
responsibility of Norfolk Southern Railway according to a FELA lawsuit
that has recently been launched.
The Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) was enacted at the turn of the last century in response to a spate of injuries and deaths suffered by rail workers on the then-humming rail lines. While rail service has fallen from its once-lofty perch, the institution is still alive and viable—and the risks for rail workers are, too.
Case in point is Steven Rennels, a long-serving employee with Norfolk Southern Railway. The engineer claims in a lawsuit that his sleep disorder was brought on by having to work irregular shifts. In a lawsuit filed April 14th, Rennels claims that Norfolk failed to provide adequate rest periods for its crews and enact a sleep break policy, failed to warn him of the dangers of irregular sleep patterns, and contributed to the problem by calling him in to work in a negligent fashion.
Basically, the suit alleges that the defendant failed to provide Rennels with a safe place to work.
In addition to his diagnosis for CRSD, part of a collection of sleep disorders, which affect the timing of sleep, Rennels also claims that he has suffered from fatigue, depression, tinnitys, pain and mental anguish. The plaintiff claims that his condition, caused by irregular work hours allegedly mandated by his employer, has forced him to undergo medical treatment, tests and therapy. The situation has caused the plaintiff much pain and suffering, mental anguish, and lost wages together with lost fringe benefits.
In general, the suit claims that the rail worker has lost the capacity for enjoying the normal pursuits of life.
Norfolk Southern, it has been reported, has countered by stating in its view the claim by Rennels under the auspices of FELA are pre-empted by the Federal Hours of Service Act.
The rail line argues that work hours for engineers are covered by federal law, and therefore the complaint should be duly dismissed with regard to the fact, or allegation that the subject matter covered in the complaint is preempted by federal law.
"Plaintiff does not allege that Norfolk Southern violated the Hours of Service Act, but rather alleges he worked 'irregular shifts'," the motion states.
The employer goes on to argue that the rail worker's claim for negligent infliction of emotional distress should also be dismissed, as he has not alleged that he was within the "zone of danger of a physical impact."
Just because the man may not have been, or has failed to state that he may have been in the zone, or in danger of a physical impact, does not preclude fear and loathing that it may happen. The fact remains that a tired worker is a stressed worker, as he has to work harder, and put forth a greater effort to maintain the concentration necessary to do the job. This can lead to exhaustion, which in itself can affect sleep patterns.
Meanwhile, experts continue to make the case that sleep deprivation is just as much an impairment as that stemming from intoxication from alcohol, or other drugs. Research shows that individuals who have been awake for 17 hours straight or longer, run the risk of falling asleep. And it can happen, they say, "just like that." Employees who are already tired on the job, and arrive at work sleep-deprived due to irregular hours, run an even greater risk of either falling asleep on the job, or making costly mistakes. Both scenarios can prove hazardous to employees, as well as customers and others under that employee's care and charge.
Other industries, such as the airline and trucking sectors, observe strict guidelines for rest periods and shift turnaround governing pilots and drivers respectively. These guidelines are in response to data which shows that accidents decline when vital employees are refreshed and working at top form.
It's bad enough when an employee is forced to undertake his or her standard tasks while tired. Perish the thought if an unexpected incident or emergency occurs when that employee is without the capacity to respond with all his faculties.
Rest is not laziness. Rest is vital to a productive employee, and a safe workplace.
Madison County Circuit Court Judge Andy Matoesian will hear the suit.