WMATA studying ways to fight fatigue

Written by Jenifer Nunez, assistant editor
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On Thursday, Dec. 6, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Board Safety and Security Committee will receive an update on fatigue research, including a key finding that recommends a methodical, comprehensive approach to the issue rather than solely considering the number of hours an employee works.

WMATA first began addressing the issue of fatigue management in 2011, starting with a joint study with the Tri-State Oversight Committee.

“While we need to avoid schedules that call for excessive hours, it’s equally important to modify work patterns through a combination of education, training and lifestyle choices to ensure employees can avoid fatigue,” said WMATA Board Safety Committee Chair Mort Downey. “We have to dig deeper so that employees are educated about the importance of sleep habits and personal wellness, so they understand how their choices off the job relate to fatigue.”

Transit systems schedule employees to support two rush-hour periods that bookend a traditional office work day, often with rest breaks built in. Scheduling is also complicated on a system that is working aggressively to overcome a backlog of safety and maintenance projects to bring the system into a “steady state” of repair. Transit agencies are not governed by a uniform standard restricting hours of service for employees. The work undertaken by WMTA over the past year is intended to place the authority as a leader among transit properties nationwide.

Metro’s rail operating department is already taking steps to modify shifts that contain excessive hours or fatigue-inducing patterns, as well as revising training programs and developing employee awareness programs that emphasize good sleep schedules.

The report from the fatigue management expert who conducted the research recommends that WMATA consider several factors in developing a fatigue management program, including the shift time of day, employee sleep habits and general wellness factors that contribute to readiness for duty.

Metro is working to mitigate fatigue by establishing and maintaining a Fatigue Risk Management System that incorporates the following principles:

• Providing working conditions that support the prevention and mitigation of fatigue, undergirded by appropriate education and training.

• Encouraging employees and contractors to take advantage of opportunities for sleep and promote wellness as part of part of WMATA’s safety culture. WMATA managers and supervisors will model appropriate work/sleep behaviors in the interest of a positive safety culture.

• Limiting the numbers of hours worked based on scientific knowledge regarding the effects of sleep loss and normal body clock (“circadian”) phases.

• Continuing to develop a medical fitness-for-duty program that includes protocols for identification and management of sleep disorders among safety-sensitive employees.

• Making adjustments periodically based upon review of data defined by program metrics and safety results, as evidenced by accident rates and investigatory findings for accidents and precursor events.

• Improving existing Fatigue Awareness campaigns.

Subsequent research will collect data from a larger pool of employees, using notebooks to log sleep patterns over a two-week period.

Categories: OFF Track Maintenance, Rapid Transit/Light Rail, Safety/Training