The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has issued an industry-wide safety advisory to warn about safety hazards associated with flat switching operations on railroads.
Since 2009, six railroad employees sustained fatal injuries placing themselves between unsecured rolling equipment during switching operations, including one employee who was killed last year.
“Safety is our highest priority,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “We are committed to taking the necessary steps to secure the safety of the traveling public, as well as those working in the transportation field.”
In flat switching, rail cars are diverted to the proper track to complete a train by one of two methods, either by “manually kicking” or “shoving to couple.” When rail cars are kicked, they are uncoupled from the switching locomotive while in motion, allowed to roll freely and are expected to couple with the other rail cars upon impact with the new train. When rail cars are shoved to couple, they are not uncoupled from the switching locomotive until they have already coupled with and are secured to the new train.
Through investigations of one of the six fatalities, FRA identified switching yard characteristics that may increase the risks of unsecured rail equipment rolling back onto an employee if an irregular grade is present in a flat switching yard.
During kicking operations, employees are at greater risk if the rail car doesn’t couple securely with other rail cars already resting on the destination track, the FRA stated.
“Kicking railcars is efficient, but it can also have significant consequences if rail carriers don’t have operating rules to safeguard employees to ensure that kicked rail cars are securely coupled,” said Federal Railroad Administrator Joseph Szabo. “Where there is risk of a rollback shoving to couple provides absolute certitude.”
In 2010, FRA released recommendations developed by the Switching Operations Fatality Analysis Working Group (SOFA) that have been adopted by individual railroads in their operating rules. Today’s Safety Advisory 2013-03 warns railroad management and employees about the inherent dangers of employee movements between unsecured rolling rail cars. It advises railroads to review and follow SOFA recommendations previously set forth in a FRA 2011 Safety Advisory and, where conditions exists, to develop operating rules that safeguard employees and advises employees to follow the rules.