How fighting fatigue could make Ontario railways safer

Exhaustion is a major concern for railroad workers — which is why the Teamsters see a new CN contract provision as a “major win”
By Brennan Doherty - Published on Feb 12, 2020
The Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, a union representing roughly 3,000 conductors and railroad personnel at CN, went on strike for eight days in November 2019. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

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On a map, railway lines trisect Pickering: arteries of commerce and trade spanning the length of Lake Ontario’s northern shore. One of those lines, owned by Canadian National Railway, cuts the city in half along Highway 401, running past Pickering’s downtown core. Somewhere along those tracks, in the fall of 2018, an overworked CN conductor stopped his train and refused to move until federal rail regulators cleared him to do so.

“My engineer is exhausted. I’m exhausted,” he told an impatient chief rail-traffic controller. “I told you we were exhausted right from the get-go.” The recording of this heated exchange was leaked to the press by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, a union representing roughly 3,000 conductors and railroad personnel at CN, during an eight-day strike last November. Two weeks ago, these workers quietly ratified a new contract with CN containing a provision that could make railways in Ontario — and across Canada — safer and incidents such as the one caught on tape a thing of the past.

Pay wasn’t the strikers’ biggest concern. Many of them make a healthy five-figure income and have overtime opportunities and union-negotiated benefit plans. Their main concern was safety, specifically fatigue. Railways are round-the-clock operations. On one day, a conductor might wake up at the crack of dawn to crew a 6 a.m. train: the next, they could be on their way to a terminal as their kids are going to bed. There is a mandatory 12-hour limit on shifts worked by train crews — but the federal laws don’t guard against them arriving to work exhausted because of a scheduled-induced chaotic circadian rhythm. “They don’t happen once in a blue moon,” says Christopher Monette, spokesperson for Teamsters Canada, of the recorded conversation. “They happen very, very often.”

On the surface, this new provision tweaks a long-standing labour practice known as “work-now, grieve-later.” Basically, workers who feel their labour rights have been violated are typically told to finish their shift and file a grievance later. Monette says CN often told train crews to finish their duties before filing these complaints. But, in their latest collective agreement, these 3,000 or so railroaders will be allowed to stop working immediately if fatigue is a concern — a situation railroad companies have previously said isn’t always practical. But the Teamsters see it as a major win. “It’s a very specific and targeted improvement,” Monette says. “Don’t get me wrong: this is big for our members.”

In a statement released January 31, CN president and CEO J.J. Ruest said that the rail company was “pleased to have completed these agreements.” A CN spokesperson declined to comment further when contacted by TVO.org for this story.

In most professions, arriving at work tired is, at worst, an inconvenience. But fatigue can be particularly dangerous for railroaders, says Clinton Marquardt, a human-fatigue expert and a former Transportation Safety Board investigator. It slows down reaction time, impairs judgment, and can even cause a railroader to disregard an obstacle right in front of their train — such as a car stuck on the tracks at a railroad crossing. “Every second counts in an emergency situation,” Marquardt says. According to him, staying awake for 17 hours or longer is the equivalent of having a 0.05 blood-alcohol content rating.

Marquardt believes the new policy will allow workers to take themselves off-duty — or allow managers to send them home if they’re clearly too tired to be on the job. “That, on paper, is amazing,” he says.

Despite the limits on shift length in Canada’s rail industry, Monette says train crews are often fatigued. He says railroaders can be called to a train or yard with just two hours’ notice at any time of the day or night. It’s not unheard of, Monette says, for workers to be woken up at 7 a.m., go about their day, and then receive orders at 10 p.m. to crew a locomotive for a 10-hour shift: “You couldn’t even drive a car — let alone operate a train — under those circumstances.”

There are other consequences: shift workers are more likely to contract type 2 diabetes, suffer heart congestion, be obese, and see marriages end in separation or divorce. And exhausted train crews are also far more likely to get into accidents: while Marquardt says fatigue is not sending trains off the tracks on a daily basis, an annual issues list from the Transportation Safety Board found that sleep-related issues have been a contributing factor in 31 railway derailments, including the horrific Lac-Mégantic disaster, since the early 1990s.

Closer to home for Pickering is the devastating 1979 Mississauga derailment. A Canadian Pacific train loaded with propane and liquid chlorine derailed just before midnight and exploded. More than 200,000 people were told to leave their homes in what was one of the largest peacetime evacuations in North American history. The issue in that case was an overheated wheel bearing, not fatigue, but the disaster illustrates the potential danger of living near rail lines.

Pickering city councillor Maurice Brenner says that safety is important to his residents — and that the new collective agreement creates safeguards. “There’s nothing worse than people that are involved in rail safety and on trains that are overtired and beyond capacity and then put lives at risk,” Brenner says. “You don’t just put those that are on the train at risk. You put communities around them at risk.”

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