Remarks of Jim Hall
Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board
before the Annual Conference of the
Association of American Railroads Safety Section
San Antonio, Texas, June 1, 1998
Good afternoon, and thank you for your most gracious welcome. I am delighted to be here today. The Association of American Railroads represents an industry directly responsible for the safety of 264,000 railroad workers. Moreover, your association has had a tremendous influence on the safety of the American public, both in terms of the thousands of passengers who ride your trains daily, and the millions of citizens who live alongside and across your tracks.
As the Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, I am responsible for overseeing investigations into accidents in all modes of transportation. The Safety Board, working through our party system, does everything in its power to determine the causes of transportation accidents, and makes recommendations to ensure that similar events do not occur again. I feel very fortunate to be associated with an agency whose primary function is to make sure that the public continues to be provided one of the safest transportation systems in the world.
Today, I want to talk to you about a serious problem that affects vehicle operators in every mode of transportation, but that seems to have been given the least attention in railroading – that problem is fatigue.
Human fatigue in transportation operations is one of the most widespread safety issues in the transportation industry. It has been an item on the Safety Board’s "MOST WANTED" list of transportation safety improvements, since the list began in 1990. We are all subject to fatigue irrespective of age, gender, or occupation. Airline pilots have no more of the "right stuff" to resist fatigue than does a truck driver or a locomotive engineer.
As part of our efforts to highlight this issue, in November 1995, the Safety Board cosponsored with NASA - Ames Research Center a symposium titled "Managing Human Fatigue in Transportation." This event brought together speakers who were internationally recognized leaders in the field of fatigue research to present their strategies for addressing the problem of fatigue in transportation.
I was pleased that more than 600 people from 16 countries, representing all modes of transportation, attended. Since that conference, several industry groups and federal agencies have sponsored similar events to address this issue and I am pleased to see it on the agenda for this meeting.
Yet, fatigue continues to be a problem for the transportation industry, especially the industry you represent. Last month, I received a letter from the widow of a railroader who was killed while on duty. Apparently, he had fallen asleep while operating his train. When we looked into the circumstances of the accident, they confirmed some very disturbing things we have believed about the rail industry.
The engineer rarely knew in advance exactly when he would have to work next. As a matter of routine, he would often get called in the middle of the night for instructions to appear for work in a couple of hours. As his widow explained to me in her letter, on the day of his accident:
"My husband called the recording to find out when he would supposedly be going to work. . . .Later, I called the recording too, but of course it said the same thing all day. That he was on the line-up for 5 p.m. . . .They finally called him for 8:30 p.m. This was a common occurrence. He never knew when he world leave, how long he would be gone, or how long he work be home, either. . . .We could never plan anything. . . .Sometimes he wold be read for work, 8 to 12 hours before he would finally receive a call. There is no other industry that I am familiar with, which is so unprofessional as to keep their employees uninformed abut something as essential as their work schedule. The last time I called that recording, it was again inaccurate. It said that Mike was still on duty. That was approximately two hours after Mike was pronounced dead."
Her letter identified one of the issues we’ve found. Her husband’s job required him to work extremely long days. In fact, he was allowed to work an average of 14 hours a day, 7 days a week -- over 400 hours a month.
Often, he would have only 8 hours off between assignments. In those 8 hours, he would leave work for home, and have little time to eat, shower, sleep, and spend time with his family, before having to go back to work.
The fact that he could work over 400 hours a month would be a shocking revelation to most Americans. It should embarrass those with the authority to change it. It is the Safety Board’s belief that the Hours of Service laws should be changed to reflect our knowledge of the sources of fatigue and the effects of fatigue on transportation safety.
The Hours of Service law is flawed for at least three reasons: the burdensome amount of work and the minimal amount of rest permitted, the fact that fatigue plays a part in so many accidents the NTSB investigates, and the lack of any scientific support for the work/rest provisions of the current law. Let me expand on each of these points.
The current railroad Hours of Service laws permit, and many railroad carriers require, the most burdensome fatigue-inducing work schedule of any federally-regulated transportation mode in this country. A comparison of the modes is revealing. The aviation, highway, marine, and rail modes all have federally imposed limits on the amounts of work and rest in a 24-hour period. The aviation and highway modes also impose weekly limits. Only aviation has monthly and annual limits. To keep the comparison simple, consider the number of hours an employee is permitted to work in the course of a 30-day month:
• A commercial airline pilot can fly up to 100 hours per month;
• Shipboard personnel, at sea, cannot be required to operate more than 240 hours per month;
• A truck driver can be on duty up to about 260 hours per month; and
• Locomotive engineers can operate a train up to 432 hours per month. That equates to more than 14 hours a day for each of those 30 days.
I cannot understand why a locomotive engineer, or other train crew member, is permitted to work more than 4 times longer than an airline pilot and more than one and one-half times longer than a truck driver. Beyond the self-images that pilots, or engineers, or even chairmen may have of themselves, we are all alike in our need for rest. And, I don’t know of anyone working these kinds of hours who wouldn’t be in a permanent state of exhaustion.
Let me emphasize that I am not advocating cutting everybody back to 100 hours a month. My point is that allowing any transportation worker in a safety sensitive position to work over 400 hours per month is excessive and unconscionable.
Many executives, perhaps some of you here, proudly state that they work 60 hours a week, or even 80 hours a week. Others complain that they have to work those hours just to keep up. Regardless, even at 80 hours a week, railroad crewmembers are still allowed to work over 100 hours a month more. And they are operating trains weighing 8,000 tons which can contain any number of hazardous materials, and, of course, operating those trains past the towns, neighborhoods, and schools of our nation.
The second reason that the current Hours of Service laws are flawed can be found in the Safety Board’s own investigative experience. In all of the railroad accident investigations in which the Board determined fatigue to be a causal or contributing factor, the train crew members were all in compliance with the Hours of Service law – as railroaders are inclined to say, they were all "rested under the law." That phrase, "rested under the law," perpetuates a myth that somehow, almost magically, a crew member who has been off duty for 8 or 10 hours is truly rested. We all know how misleading that is, especially when you take into account commuting time, meals, and maybe even a little time with one’s spouse and children.
Adding to this are the problems generated by the uncertainty of knowing when they will be called back for duty and the difficulty of sleeping because their time off duty was during the day. Combine these together and you see increasing indices of fatigue. The bottom line is that little of that 8 to 10 hours is used for true rest.
Finally, the Hours of Service law has no basis in science. In fairness to those who framed the laws in 1907, there was little more than anecdotal knowledge about fatigue at that time. But, following much in-depth study of sleep and fatigue in the last two decades – in fact, there were more than 600 articles on the subject in 1994 alone – we now know a great deal about the sleep phenomenon, the effects of human biological or circadian rhythms, and the debilitating effects that cumulative sleep loss has on alertness and health. In fact, in this decade alone, federal transportation agencies have spent almost $20 million in fatigue-related research – not counting the tax dollars spent by NASA and other government agencies.
The railroad hours of service as structured are too simplistic. They only prescribe the maximum hours on duty and a minimum amount of rest in a 24-hour period. They do not take into account (1) how human circadian rhythms interact with the time of day when the work/rest periods take place, (2) the cumulative effects of working an unlimited number of successive days, and (3) the long-term health effects of various work/rest schedules. In short, it is time now for a substantial, scientifically-based revision to the Hours of Service Act.
We have laws limiting how much a person can drink before operating a train. Federal Railroad Administration regulations prohibit a railroad employee from going on duty with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.04% or greater. We know that a person’s performance can be impaired with any amount of alcohol in their system. We don’t need to be reminded of the tragedies that result from drunken drivers.
But for some reason, we as a society don’t place the same emphasis on fatigued operators.
Recently, the Safety Board became aware of some interesting research by Dr. Drew Dawson of the University of South Australia, as published in the journal "Nature," that compared the performance of people who had been kept awake for many hours with the performance of those same people after they had been drinking.
The results were enlightening: People who had been kept awake for 18 hours performed as poorly on cognitive and motor skills tests as they did when their blood alcohol concentration was 0.05 percent. After 24 hours without sleep, performance of the fatigued people dropped to the level of those with a BAC of 0.096 percent. The thought of a drunken driver frightens us greatly. This research says that we need to be just as fearful about the fatigued operator.
If you think this fear is overstated, let me remind you that:
1) An engineer whose train ran through a stop signal in Corona, California, in 1990 had been awake for about 26 hours before he collided head-on with another train;
2) An engineer who had an accident in Sugar Valley, Georgia in 1990 was awake for 17 hours before falling asleep, allowing his train to collide with another.
3) And just last year, an engineer of a train that collided with another train in Delia, Kansas was awake for more than 18 hours before his accident. The widow of whom I spoke earlier was his wife. The final report of this accident is scheduled to go before the Board at the end of June.
These men did not live to tell us their stories, but there are others who, despite working under extreme conditions, have been able to share their experiences with others – including the Board. One engineer recently wrote us, and I quote:
"Seven days a week, twelve hours a day, exceeds a normal forty hour week, and there are not scheduled days off. The long hours have become longer instead of shorter as one would expect in view of the recent fatigue-related accidents. With our long hours, and 7-day work week, as well as layover time away from home, there is not adequate time for sleep, eating or other basic functions. Frivolities like family or social life are not possible."
In the Board’s 1991 report on the Sugar Valley accident that I mentioned earlier, the Safety Board said that it was "hopeful that the FRA will soon provide guidelines to help the railroad industry reduce or eliminate accidents caused by fatigue."
Seven years have passed since that report was issued. I note that just this spring, the FRA proposed fatigue guidelines as part of its "Federal Railroad Safety Authorization Act of 1998." The Act would amend the Hours of Service regulations by adding a new section 21109 titled "Fatigue Management Plans".
The Safety Board feels that fatigue management plans are a step in the right direction – but a small one. These plans would require carriers to address such issues as sleep disorders, scheduling practices and alertness strategies. But we feel that these efforts fall short of what is really needed.
We believe that the real answer lies in fatigue prevention plans. We want the men and women who run the trains to be fully rested and alert before they climb up into the cab. We do not want to rely on stop-gap management measures such as napping strategies or caffeine to protect an operating crew from the effects of fatigue – because they can’t. They’re only temporary fixes.
The Safety Board believes that to formulate effective fatigue prevention plans will first require rewriting the Hours of Service laws. As I said earlier, the Hours of Service Act is flawed. It has been flawed since it was first enacted in 1907, and has remained so throughout its substantial revision in 1969 and as amended in 1976 and 1988. This flawed legislation from the early years of the century should not be allowed to continue to permit unsafe railroad transportation practices into the next century.
Even the FRA has recently acknowledged that the Hours of Service regulations have an adverse impact on safety. A recent FRA study found that locomotive engineers who work backward rotating shifts – in which each day’s shift begins earlier in the day – accumulated a progressive sleep debt over a period of days. The study concluded that "current federal regulations governing Hours of Service have the potential to allow work schedules which degrade the job performance of locomotive engineers and reduce the safety of railroad operations."
It will take both management and labor to change the current Hours of Service regulations. Management likes the current set-up because it allows them to hire fewer employees, limiting fixed incremental overhead costs. Every full-time permanent employee incurs certain costs for a company, like training and health benefits, regardless of how many hours he or she works.
Labor likes it because it allows the worker to put in more hours and earn more money, irrespective of the toll it takes on them. During our hearing on Union Pacific accidents in March of this year, we heard from a union spokesman who agreed that many railroad workers look upon their job as piece work, where a day off is not a day of rest, but a day without pay.
This mindset – both by management and labor – must be changed. And those in authority in management, labor and government must change these rules.
Will you in this vital organization, an organization that has done so much to improve the safety of the transportation mode you represent, join us in our efforts to change this antiquated law?
I hope you will.
Thank you for inviting me today.