Metro: Bus drivers' fatigue a problem

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Photo - Metro says fatigue is major problem for its bus drivers. (Examiner file photo)
Metro says fatigue is major problem for its bus drivers. (Examiner file photo)
Local,Transportation,Kytja Weir

Some Metrobus drivers are working more than 20 hours in a day, four more than allowed even under Metro's own rules, according to a new agency study on fatigue.

A summary of the report, slated to be presented to board members on Thursday, shows Metro had 146 cases in which drivers worked from 16.25 to 20 hours a day in the July 2011 study month. It had another 50 cases of drivers logging more than 20 hours without the required eight hours off in a 24-hour period.

Logging a long day even without overtime
Some bus operators work swing shifts that cover the morning, then the afternoon rush periods with a break in between. But the total time from when they arrive at work to when they finish can run as much as 16 hours. Furthermore, the study found, most Metrobus facilities do not have rest or "quiet" rooms where operators can actually rest during those breaks.
In addition to the long day, some workers commute two hours, giving them an 18-hour day away from home with just six hours for sleeping and everything else.

And the study found some logged up to 10 consecutive days of work, while some employees logged more than 80 hours per week.

"They're racking up a lot of overtime," said Metro board member and safety committee chairman. "Further evidence that we've got to get our arms around this issue."

The report is the second study from the agency about fatigue issues. Last fall, Metro and its outside safety group, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, studied fatigue in the rail system after The Washington Examiner reported on employees logging extensive overtime. The Examiner found some employees working more than 40 hours of overtime each week for weeks on end, and a bus operator was among the top 25 workers at the agency logging the most extra hours in 2010.

Metro declined to provide a copy of the full bus fatigue report. The summary notes only a small group is working the long hours or long weeks, with many bus operators logging five-day workweeks and normal shifts.

"Even without overtime, opportunity for adequate sleep can be impeded by preparing to drive, driving, awaiting the next segment of their shift, and commuting to and from home," the summary says.

The Tri-State Oversight Committee does not have any authority over Metrobus safety, but the group's vice chairman, James Benton, said fatigue is the same safety issue on trains and buses. "Employees will work huge amounts of overtime if you let them based on their personal needs, their retirement," he said. "They don't know that their body is saying no in a lot of cases until it's too late."

It's not clear how many tired workers have caused bus crashes. The agency averages about six bus crashes each day.

But drive cameras caught MetroAccess drivers literally falling asleep while driving 87 times in less than three years from July 2008 through May 2011, as The Examiner first reported. Metro is still studying fatigue in its MetroAccess system.

The challenge, though, is getting workers and their unions to agree to limits on how many hours or consecutive days they can work. The agency is currently negotiating with its largest union, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. But Mortimer Downey, vice president of the Board of Directors, said the agency has not ruled out limiting work hours unilaterally as a safety precaution, without input from the unions.

ATU Local 689 President Jackie Jeter said Metro is just paying lip service to fatigue concerns, though. "All of us know some of the issues to alleviate fatigue," she said. "Our operators want it done."

She said some 300 operators signed a petition in April about fatigue and long bus run times. But she said the agency has control of the schedules, the shuttle bus service it runs during rail shutdowns and the lack of space for rest between shifts. "If they were really serious about it, they could do a whole lot more," she said.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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Kytja Weir

Staff Writer - Transportation
The Washington Examiner