NTSB continues to press worker safety message

Written by David C. Lester, Editor-in-Chief
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The National Transportation Safety Board has communicated significant concern about railroad worker safety.

Five years after the Jan. 17, 2017, Edgemont, South Dakota, tragedy in which two railroad roadway workers were struck and killed by a BNSF train, the National Transportation Safety Board continues to advocate for implementation of recommendations addressing rail worker safety as a result of its investigation.

The latest Bureau of Transportation data shows a total of 456 employee on-duty fatalities since 1997. In 2020, the NTSB investigated eight accidents involving railroad and transit worker fatalities. These alarming statistics are why “Improve Rail Worker Safety” is an item on the NTSB’s 2021 – 2022 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.

NTSB issued seven safety recommendations based on the investigation involving a westbound BNSF Railway train, traveling at 35 mph, when it struck and killed two roadway workers, including the watchman/lookout. The three-member roadway work group had been cleaning snow and ice from the track switch on the main track to prepare for the movement of a train that was to have its air brake system tested in a stationary test on the main track. The crew of the striking train sounded the train horn and bell, and both members of the train crew applied emergency braking; however, there was no response from the roadway work group, and the train was unable to stop before reaching the work location.

NTSB determined the probable cause was the improper use of train approach warning by the BNSF Railway roadway work group to provide on-track safety.

“This tragedy unfortunately exposed the many issues that still need to be addressed to protect train crews, maintenance-of-way employees, and mechanical workers from getting killed or injured,” said NTSB Board Member Thomas Chapman. “If adopted, our recommendations will help to mitigate the risks associated with this work and provide better protection to workers across all railroads.”

Of the seven safety recommendations, all remain open and five are open with unacceptable action. The recommendations issued to the Federal Railroad Administration and BNSF Railway address safety issues including improper use of train approach warning, deficient watchman/lookout equipment, and incomplete roadway worker on-track safety briefings.

The final report is available at https://go.usa.gov/xtjDK.

The public docket for this investigation is available at http://go.usa.gov/xtjDU.

Related material is available at https://go.usa.gov/xtjDX​.

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