The investigation into exactly what happened on January 12 is still in progress and our union will respect the independence of that investigation. But, what we do know now, is that since the Red Line accident of 2009 that took nine people’s lives, Metro has failed to invest in the emergency training that all employees need on a consistent basis. Instead, our members, who are the operators, maintenance and clerical employees of WMATA, have been discouraged from reporting unsafe conditions and even suspended. Management seems to feel the need to discipline rather than instruct, guide and support. But, management will never be able to discipline its way to a safety culture. The fact that any employee should fear how management might react if an employee makes a report on a safety concern is unacceptable and dangerous! Unfortunately, for hundreds of our members, this is the reality that they face every day.
The recommendations of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) that Metro instituted after the 2009 accident were intended to compel WMATA to create a safety culture, but it did not happen. Instead, WMATA instituted the recommendations that revolved around workers’ compensation claims and worker-punishing statistics like accidents, cut trips, and absenteeism. The problem with this approach is that the conversation never considered the root problems of on-site safety, unruly passengers, routes, lack of recovery time, or access to bathroom facilities, just to name a few. These were the issues our union said needed to be addressed then and is repeating now.
Additionally, there are rail operators in Metro who received emergency preparation training when they first started and have never been trained again. This means that a train operator hired in 2005 received their last emergency preparation ten years ago. The world of 2015 is dramatically different than that of 2005, and WMATA has done little to prepare operators and other employees for that reality. So, I ask: if WMATA will not prepare its workforce for safety training in current world conditions, how many are being put in danger?
Even with Metro’s safety issues, it needs to be stated that Metro Rail has not seen a fatality in more than five years, and is still the safest mode of transportation in D.C. On the other hand, that record of safety is not due to effective emergency preparedness training by WMATA leadership, but because employees have taken it upon themselves to practice greater care out of fear of discipline for reporting hazardous conditions.
As Metro’s employees, we understand that the public sees us as the responsible parties for all the actions (or inactions) that WMATA takes. We also understand that any safety measures that we take are first to keep the riding public safe, then to protect ourselves. What we need the public to understand is that the parties responsible for our preparation are those who sign the budgets, make and implement the rules, supervise, and, most importantly, train the employees in handling emergency situations. If they are not prepared, we are not, either. The unfortunate truth we learned last week is that WMATA is not prepared, and it may have cost someone their life.
With programs like the Close Call reporting system, a system where Metro rail employees can make anonymous tips on safety violations, we have already seen that we can make positive safety changes by working together as a union with management. We know collaboration can work. Today, our union stands ready to roll up its sleeves with WMATA and establish clear, substantive and measurable changes that will increase safety for riders and Metro employees so that we can try to prevent emergency incidents whenever possible.
There are four things we are looking for WMATA to do to truly create a safety culture:
1) Reallocate resources to retrain the entire workforce for emergency preparedness at least annually. Additionally, commit to more substantive programs like Close Call Reporting, regular seminars, and small training sessions.
2) Hold management to the same standards of emergency preparation as our members so that they, too, are prepared when an emergency strikes. Currently, management is not held to the same standards.
3) Abolish the ineffective Safety Committee meetings and reinstitute the Joint Labor/Management Safety Committee to increase worker involvement and open communication between management and employees.
4) Create incentive programs for reporting safety violations and hazards. By doing so, our union believes this will change the perception of retaliation many workers believe they will encounter if they make a safety report. It will also foster a trust between management and employees.
WMATA places the responsibility of the system’s safety on the shoulders of the workers with the ever present threat of increased discipline for rule violations without real support and guidance. These types of punitive actions must stop. Like so many in the DMV, our families, friends and neighbors ride Metro. We live, work and care about this community because it is ours. We want safe, clean and reliable public transportation to keep this region moving forward in growth and ingenuity. That is our aspiration as employees and citizens, and our commitment to contribute to a greater and safer Metro system.