Rail Worker Fatigue: Tired, and working the
June 21, 2008
Printer friendly version
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.
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
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
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
Madison County Circuit Court Judge Andy Matoesian will hear the suit.