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Railroad switching fatalities hit all-time low in 2013

Railroad switching fatalities hit all-time low in 2013

In 1977 –the year after I began my railroading career– 48 railroad employees lost their lives in switching accidents. That’s four lives every month in switching accidents alone. That's more than a statistic to me. My father is a retired switchman; I switched box cars; and five of my friends have been killed on duty during my railroading career.

More than three decades later, we have made significant progress. In 2013, only one employee died during a switching operation. And while we still see this as one too many, it shows us what’s possible when the Federal Railroad Administration, the rail industry, and rail labor come together to form safety partnerships and eliminate risks.

Photo of a freight train and worker in a rail yard
Photo courtesy joeknowsphoto

Switchmen oversee the movement of rail cars and the assembly and disassembly of trains. They operate track switches, and they relay signals affecting the movement of trains. They're an essential part of the rail industry, but their work requires them to be in close proximity to trains and track.

In 1998, at FRA’s request, the Switching Operations Fatality Analysis (SOFA) group was formed with representatives from our agency, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers & Trainmen, the United Transportation Union, the Association of American Railroads, and the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association. Working together, SOFA set out on a detailed fact-finding mission focused on identifying risks for switching employees, analyzing accidents and educating workers.

This allowed SOFA to not only illuminate accident trends and their causes, but more importantly, to issue recommendations for improving the safety of switching operations.

In 1999, SOFA identified five actions, referred to as Lifesavers, that have since been widely adopted into practice and have, in turn, set in a motion a long-term trend of crew members and supervisors more proactively working together to reinforce safe work practices as well as a safe working environment.

These Lifesavers are:

  • Secure equipment before action is taken;
  • Protect employees against moving equipment;
  • Discuss safety at the beginning of a job or when a project changes;
  • Communicate before action is taken; and
  • Mentor less experienced employees to perform service safety.

SOFA also issued three major reports --in 1999, 2004, and 2011.  Our 2010 analysis of SOFA found that, year by year, the group got better at converting analysis and recommendations to real changes in the field, building on years of hard work to lead us to last year’s important safety record.

In the year before SOFA was formed in 1997, 11 people were killed in switching operation. In 2011, there were four fatalities, followed by three in 2012, and just one last year.

Much of this improvement can be attributed to the five Livesavers.

For me, the loss of any railroad employee is very difficult; it is always personal. But thanks to SOFA’s hard work –and the commitment and professionalism of those workers on the ground in the rail yards–  we’re on the right path. And with continued cooperation among SOFA’s stakeholders, I believe we can achieve our ultimate goal of all rail workers returning safely home each day.

To those workers who did not make it home, to their families, and to their friends –our safety efforts are dedicated to you.

Joe Szabo is the Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

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SOFA is great. I think we can have zero injuries and fatalities if we look at all avenues of progress.
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