Fatigue: A Continuing Problem in the
Source: By Mark John Odegard of Yaeger, Jungbauer & Barczak, PLC
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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 US 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
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 companys' 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.