Recently, Hoey & Farina received an email question from a local chairman who works as a signal maintainer. He stated that he routinely works alone. He must climb 40 to 50 feet to perform his job responsibilities.
Too often, he and other maintainers are given an ill-fitting safety harness or an old leather belt with a strap.
Worse yet, some guys do the job without the railroad providing any safety harness at all. The local chairman also wrote that even if the signalman can get a properly fitting safety harness, the signals on which he climbs rarely, if ever, have a proper D-ring to lock into once he reaches the top of the signal.
RAILROAD INDUSTRY DANGEROUS PLACE TO WORK
Everyone reading this article knows firsthand that the railroad industry is a dangerous place to work. Is there a lack of effective safety standards and / or enforcement for signalmen in the rail industry? I do not know. But I do know that signalmen are concerned about the risks they have to take on a daily basis.
As told to Hoey & Farina by signalmen at union meetings, railroads routinely send signalmen out to do their jobs ALONE. Putting aside a common sense argument against this practice, the railroads’ sending signalmen out on the job alone greatly increases their risk of serious injury and death. Judging from what I have seen of how railroads operate, I can offer the opinion that the railroads send only one man out to perform signal maintainer duties because one man costs less than two men. Like many decisions of corporate America, including the railroads, the shortsightedness of this approach comes at the great cost of safety and human lives.
LACK OF RETRIEVAL TRAINING STANDARDS FOR SIGNALMEN
To spotlight the danger of working alone, the same local chairman discussed with me the lack of retrieval training standards for signalmen. Assuming the railroader has a proper harness and is properly strapped in his equipment, if and when a fall occurs, the local chairman said that a signalman may be left hanging in the harness, oftentimes over the track, without any way to climb to a safe and secure position. He pointed out, even after only 15 minutes, signalmen left hanging can suffer severe injury from the stresses of the harness. He asked me what he could do to make the work environment safer.
NOTICE TO THE RAILROAD
The first step in improving safety for your brothers and sisters on the job is by giving the railroad notice of any unsafe condition. See Straight Track #161. If you are a signalman, or if you work with signal maintainers, raise these safety issues at the next safety meeting, or write up any violations you notice on the road or in the yard such as broken ladders, broken or missing cages, etc. "Notice" to the railroad of the defective equipment or unsafe condition is critical in establishing any claim under the FELA - Federal Employers' Liability Act, the federal law protecting railroaders. Generally speaking, the railroad always tries to counter by claiming it had no notice of any unsafe condition, unsafe procedure, or defect. By raising the issue at safety meetings, and following up with an unsafe condition report, the railroad will be hard pressed to argue it did not know of the unsafe condition.
FRA & OSHA JOINT JURISDICTION
The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) work together to assure that railroads provide railroad workers a safe place to work. For signal maintainers, like many railroad workers, figuring out which government agency’s regulations apply to their job duties can be tricky.
After OSHA was created, the FRA recognized that in order to avoid duplicative efforts for safety oversight of the railroad, FRA regulations would focus on railroad operations (movement of equipment over the rails) and the FRA would allow OSHA regulations to apply in other areas. Many times the two agencies regulations are complementary. In certain areas, the FRA regulations take precedence.
For example, the FRA maintains jurisdiction over the walking-working surfaces of ladders, platforms, and other surfaces on signal masts, catenary systems, railroad bridges, turntables, and walkways beside tracks in yards or along rights-of-way. However, OSHA regulations apply to all personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes body belts or a body harness system used so that an employee can work on an elevated, vertical working surface with both hands free while leaning.
To highlight the complexity created by these overlapping regulations, in one of our recent cases the Railroad argued in court that a commuter platform was a "bridge" in order to avoid the applicable OSHA safety regulations.
FINDING THE REGULATIONS
The FRA’s rules for the installation, inspection and maintenance of signals are provided in Title 49 Part 236 of the Code of Federal Regulations.
OSHA Section 1910.132 mandates that employers must provide protective equipment (PPE) wherever work-place hazards present the danger of injury to employees. The employer is responsible to assess the need for PPE for its employees, provide PPE to every affected employee, and provide training if necessary to each employee who is required to use PPE. OSHA also requires employers to provide and to pay for personal protective equipment required by the company for the worker to do his or her job safely and in compliance with OSHA standards. Where equipment is very personal in nature and is usable by workers off the job, OSHA dictates that the matter of payment may be left to labor-management negotiations.
OSHA Section 1915.159 also directly impacts signalmen's job duties. This section provides for "personal fall arrest systems (PFAS)," which is a system used to stop an employee's fall. For all PFAS, OSHA requires a "positioning device system", which is a body belt or body harness system rigged so that an employee can work on an elevated, vertical working surface with both hands free while leaning.
Because the interaction between OSHA and FRA regulations can get pretty complex, and because the railroad will do everything it can to avoid falling under one of these regulations, we recommend getting legal advice immediately if you sustain an on-the-job injury. Our firm’s attorneys have a great depth of experience with the FRA and OSHA regulations that govern the railroad industry and protect injured railroad workers' claims.
SAFETY INFORMATION ROUNDHOUSE
A crucial step to improve safety is to communicate to other local members what your railroad is doing about these issues. On your railroad, do you know about:
- Any steps to implement a buddy system for signalmen?
- Any regulations regarding D-rings to be provided for signal maintainers?
- Any available procedures out there for retrievals?
- Has your railroad conducted a "hazard assessment" on your signal territory?
- What protective equipment has been assigned to the signalmen?
- Does the operations budget include funds to purchase personal protective equipment and an allocation of funds for proper training?
If you know of any such information, please send it in to Hoey & Farina. We will gladly act as the safety information roundhouse for this information by posting to our Web site and sending it out in future editions of Straight Track.
The bottom line is that there are brother signalmen working out there right now -- on bridges, on signals 50 feet above the track – without the proper safety procedures and safety equipment they need, and they need our collective help.