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Railroad workers say long shifts unsafe

Some BNSF Railway employees are sounding the alarm about what they say are unsafe working conditions as a result of long shifts that could lead to extreme fatigue while hauling hazardous materials.

According to one BNSF employee who contacted the Pilot, the company has imposed a new method of operation that has employees working 12-hour days, sometimes six to 10 days in a row.

“Such a safety sensitive job for engineers and conductors running trains that are up to 17,000 tons, hauling hazardous materials and such,” said the employee who declined to be publicly identified.

“We are working more than we are at home anymore. But the carrier is putting profit ahead of employee safety, and public safety for that matter.”

About 40 people attended a town hall meeting held last week in Whitefish between employees and BNSF Montana Division General Manager Dan Fransen.

Chief among the concerns mentioned at the meeting were long work days with little rest.

Several employees shared stories of being forced to work long shifts while waiting for relief crews. Many said that those who have been furloughed need to be recalled to provide relief to employees currently working long hours.

Others shared concerns about a new method of scheduling that has left workers not knowing from one day to the next what shift they will be working.

“We go to work fatigued all the time,” said one employee at the meeting. “It’s a safety issue.”

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BNSF Railway spokesperson Matt Jones confirmed to the Pilot that the company modified operations at Whitefish in September.

He said the changes “will in no way compromise safety.”

“Hours-of-service limits have not changed,” Jones said. “Rules regarding the maximum number of hours worked and the required amount of rest are set by the Federal Railroad Administration. The run lengths haven’t changed, and there isn’t any aspect of the new arrangement that will lead to longer periods of time on duty.”

Jones said prior to the changes, there were two separate pools of employees at Whitefish. Previously, one pool of employees operated solely between Whitefish and Havre and the other pool operated solely between Whitefish and Hauser, Idaho. Now, employees in the new pool operate from Whitefish to Havre or Hauser.

Jones said there has been a recent increase in traffic volume on the northern rail corridor.

“In response, we recently recalled 25 furloughed employees in Whitefish and 20 employees in Havre,” he said.

Railroad safety has been under public scrutiny with trains hauling millions of gallons of crude oil across North America. An estimated 35 trains per day last year were rolling through Whitefish, about one or two of those hauling tank cars full of crude oil.

Fatigue has been cited as the cause of several railroad accidents across the country, according to investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board.

According to a NTSB accident report, the crew of a BNSF Railway coal train in Red Oak, Iowa in 2011 fell asleep, and instead of stopping struck a parked train. The collision resulted in the derailment of two locomotives and 12 cars, and a diesel fuel fire with damages in excess of $8.7 million. Two crew members were killed in the incident.

The primary cause of the accident, according to the report, was the crew’s fatigue resulting from irregular work schedules.

A February 2013 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that the sleep pattern of railroad workers differs from that of U.S. working adults. Railroad workers are more likely to get less than seven hours total sleep on workdays, which “puts them at risk of fatigue,” according to the report.

Fatigued crews can increase the risk of accidents anywhere from 11 to 65 percent, according to the report.

This article was written by Heidi Desch from The Whitefish Pilot and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.