Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Teamster testifies before Congress on rail safety

BLET President Dennis Pierce testifies before Congress.
This week commemorates the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, a tragedy that killed 146 young immigrant women in a New York City sweatshop.

When the fire broke out, doors were locked, windows barred and the fire escape collapsed. The sweatshop's owners were charged with manslaughter. Their acquittal inspired national outrage and a movement for workers' safety.

A century later, unions still have to fight for safer conditions for their workers. An average of 12 workers died on the job every day (including weekends) in 2009, the most recent year for which statistics are available.

The railroad industry is no exception. A big problem is exhaustion. On most days, locomotive engineers who haul freigh aren't sure when to sleep or eat because they might get called to work any time. Some of them are gone for days at a time, working 80-90 hour weeks. Fatigue has played a role in major train accidents, such as the collision of a Union Pacific and BNSF train in Macdona, Texas, in 2004. Two residents and the UP conductor died of chlorine inhalation when a tank car loaded with liquefied chlorine was punctured.

Just last week, Teamsters Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen President Dennis Pierce testified before Congress that a new law aimed at alleviating fatigue is actually making the problem worse.

The focus of the hearing was the implementation of the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. Pierce told the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials that
The law is not combating fatigue to the degree Congress intended in unscheduled freight service ...Because it is not based on science, the 6 days worked-48 hours off provision is not mitigating fatigue ... The law allows the railroads to create situations where employees who are truly fatigued do not qualify for 48 hours off. Conversely, the application of the law requires others who are not fatigued to take 48 hours off.
Pierce, who is also president of the Teamsters Rail Conference, said positive train control could have prevented 50 BLET member deaths in the past 19 years. (Positive train control is a system of monitoring and controlling train movements to increase safety.)  He told the subcommittee,
Over the past 19 years some 70 BLET members were killed in the line of duty, and PTC could have prevented nearly 50 of those deaths. To me, there is no such thing as federal regulatory overreach when it comes to returning our members safely to their families. It is appalling that profits would be placed ahead of our members’ lives.