Rail Worker Safety Affected by Falling Oil Prices

Railroad workers in Texas and throughout the United States have a right to be concerned about their safety. Last week, a website devoted to news about the Eagle Ford shale oil field in Texas posted a story about BNSF railroad workers’ concerns for their safety. They say that their long shifts create unsafe working conditions.

The railroad has acknowledged that it changed the way it schedules and operates in Whitefish, Montana, where the story originated. The changes almost certainly reflect increased pressure on the profitability of railroads caused by falling oil prices and the resulting decrease in production.

Longer Shifts Required

One BNSF employee said that the company now requires employees to work 12-hour days as long as six to 10 days in a row. Many believe that the company should recall furloughed workers instead of requiring remaining employees to work such long shifts. Although the railroad says that it has recalled those employees, it is not known how the recalled workers will be deployed.

One employee summed it up by saying, “We go to work fatigued all the time.”

Another said, “We have such a safety-sensitive job for engineers and conductors running trains that are up to 17,000 tons, hauling hazardous materials and such.”

Scheduling Changes Add To Job Uncertainty

In addition to the long shifts now required of railroad workers in that BNSF division, the company has changed how it schedules workers, who now get verylittle notice about the shifts they will be working.

The railroad denies that the changes represent a deviation from federal railroad safety rules. The only real change, according to a spokesperson, is that workers who previously were able to count on being assigned to one run, from Whitefish to Hauser (Idaho) or Whitefish to Havre, can now be assigned to either.

Government Agencies Report Link Between Fatigue And Crashes

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently reported that crew fatigue was the cause of several oil train crashes that have killed crew members and caused significant property damage. A 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation showed that railroad workers have different sleep schedules from those of other workers. Railroad workers seldom get more than seven hours of sleep on workdays, making them more likely to be fatigued. According to the report, tired crews increase the risk of crashes from 11 to 65 percent.

The effect of falling oil prices is not limited to those directly associated with the oil and gas industry. Ancillary businesses such as railroads are also affected by slowing demand for transport, making it more likely that companies will take steps to change their operations to maximize profits. According to the railroad workers in Montana, these changes could easily compromise safety.