Occupational Health & Safety

DC Transit System Using Broad Approach to Manage Fatigue

"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 Metro Board Safety Committee Chair Mort Downey.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (Metro) is delving more deeply with its research on train and bus operators' fatigue and how best to combat it. WMATA posted a report Dec. 3 about the latest research findings, which showed that total hours worked are just one of several factors affecting an employee's fatigue. Others include lifestyle changes, time of day the employee works, his or her awareness of the effects of fatigue on the body, better scheduling software, and changes in the working environment that provide the opportunity for rest.

The Metro Board Safety and Security Committee received the update Dec. 6 on the studies involved in this effort, which began last year. The report says a study of Metrobus operator shifts last July found most shifts were between 8 and 11 3/4 hours, and that only 0.4 percent of bus operators' work hours resulted in fatigue that exceeds the criterion established by the Federal Railroad Administration's research model. "Only eight percent of the shifts were scheduled for more than 12 hours, and less than one percent of shifts were greater than 16 hours," according to WMATA.

"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 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."

This is complicated by the need to set schedules to match two rush-hour periods that bookend a traditional office work day for "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," according to the report. "Unlike other modes of transportation such as railroads and airlines, transit agencies are not governed by a uniform standard restricting hours of service for employees. The work undertaken by Metro over the past year is intended to place the Authority as a leader among transit properties nationwide," it stated. "Metro's rail and bus operating departments are 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."

"Fatigue management is a complex issue, which is why this process is based in good science and requires a multifaceted approach that recognizes employees are responsible to be well rested and ready for work," said Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles. "We are already modifying our training and mitigating schedules while we prepare an education program for employees with common-sense tips about fighting fatigue and a wellness program to encourage good lifestyle choices."

Beginning in January 2013, the authority plans to ask a larger pool of its workers to keep sleep logs for a two-week period.

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