Work on the nation’s railroads has become more deadly.
In 2013, 15 railroad roadway workers died on the job, a significant increase over previous years. Since 1990 and before 2013, the average number of roadway worker on-the-job deaths was 6.4 per year.
The alarming increase in work related deaths caused the National Transportation Safety Board to take notice.
“Railroad (roadway) worker deaths have increased over the past three years,” said Christopher Hart, NTSB’s acting chair. “This trend is unacceptable.”
Roadway workers perform a number of different tasks including maintenance and repair of tracks, bridges, and other rail facilities, track inspections, construction, and other work.
The spike in the number of on-the-job deaths led to a special investigation by NTSB, and on September 24, the agency held a special hearing and released a summary of the findings resulting from the investigation.
The investigation reviewed the circumstances that led to each of the 15 deaths.
The causes were disparate. Seven died when they were hit by trains as they worked. Other causes of death included heat stroke, electrocution, overturned equipment, and falls. One roadway worker was killed in a mudslide.
NTSB’s summary of the report of its investigation did not provide details about the deadly accidents, but the website of Railroad Workers United describes some of the accidents that led to the deaths noted in NTSB’s report.
In one instance, Thomas Tarchak on August 26, 2013 was on a crew inspecting a steel bridge near Harpursville, New York for the Canadian Pacific Railway.
He was in a lift 60 feet in the air taking measurements when the lift came in contact with a power line carrying 4,800 volts.
The burst of electricity caused by the contact between the lift and the power line electrocuted him.
In his remarks during the September 24, acting chair Hart seemed to lay most of the blame for the accidents on workers’ lack of vigilance.
“I would like to direct a plea drawn from this report’s findings to any roadway worker who hears my voice or reads these words,” said Hart. “Be your brother’s and sister’s keeper. Be their reminder. Have their backs. It might mean saving their lives, and it might mean that they can help save yours. . . At the end of the day, it is the individual roadway worker who has to make it back home. At the end of the day, if you’re a roadway worker, your safety, and your co-worker’s safety, will always be in your hands.”
But Railroad Workers United offers a different take on the safety problems at work. “Our brothers and sisters continue to be killed on the job and what we see from the railroads are continuous testing harassment and ineffective “blame the worker” safety programs,” said a posting on RWU’s website.
The NTSB did make some recommendations for upgrading safety including improving coordination among the agencies that oversee rail safety, better safety briefings for workers, and requiring railways to comply with safety standards set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The report also recommend that representatives from workers’ unions be included on teams investigating accidents.
According to the report, “Union representation brings operations-specific knowledge to the investigative team and helps facilitate the cooperation of employees.”