WASHINGTON—In an effort to improve safety standards, Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority officials have discussed expanding their “close call” anonymous incident reporting program, but officials disagree on whether action should be taken against workers who may have violated WMATA policies causing those incidents.
Only transit infrastructure workers, network technicians and their supervisors are eligible to report close-call events while avoiding disciplinary actions, according to Metro Transit Police Chief Ronald Pavlik, but WMATA is looking to expand the program to rail operators, bus operators and WMATA police.
However, National Transportation Safety Board member Robert Sumwalt said, there is a line that can be crossed in reporting incidents anonymously and there will be times when workers should face disciplinary action.
“There is a line where some things should be tolerated and some things should not,” Sumwalt said. “These workers cannot always see no disciplinary action. For example, if an operator has someone riding in the first car with them, that is a violation. Should there be no discipline?”
WMATA, along with the Amalgated Transit Union Local 689 group and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, operates the close-call program, which dates to 2013, in an effort to improve the safety standards of the rail system by collecting and analyzing reports on “near-miss”incidents or malfunctions like the L’Enfant Plaza electrical malfunction that resulted in smoke filling tunnels, according to WMATA Deputy General Manager Robert Troup.
Safety officer James Madaras of the ATU said there should be no disciplinary action for workers who report something under “close-call” confidentiality unless criminal activity is involved. The ATU has no issue with disciplinary action if there are criminal circumstances, Mardaras said, but that might cause workers not to report these incidents.
“Close-call reporting is an attempt to get employees to report safety hazards,” Madaras said. “The union is not opposed to having discipline for anyone doing something intentionally. But the more restrictive things get, the less likely it will be that they talk.”
There are already policies in place for operators going against rules, Madaras said. For example, he said, if a train operator ran a red light they would face disciplinary action. Close-call reporting is for incidents and circumstances that may not be clear or highlighted as against regulations.
The close-call program is one of the “best avenues,” Madaras said, in finding unknown issues, gathering data and creating policies to address them in the future. “We want to know about unsafe conditions. This is how they tell us about them,” he said.
Discipline is still necessary in some situations, said WMATA General Manager Jack Requa. There are rules and procedures that employees are required to follow, he said, and everyone is required to operate in a safe manner.
“If information comes to us that is factual and it indicates that an employee is not performing in accordance to compliance and it is a safety issue, some discipline is required to fix that,” Requa said. “Hopefully, we can eliminate or minimize the amount of issues that take place out in the field.”
WMATA tries to use discipline on minimal levels when dealing with close-call situations, Requa said. They are looking for information from employees indicating safety hazards, he said, so the safety problem will be eliminated, and there will be no need for discipline in the future.
Employees who are eligible to use close-call reporting receive training on how to report an incident and what incidents should be reported, Troup said.
“They have received training on how to use the close-call program. They did receive initial training on that, and we continually provide information back to them on how they can do it,” Troup said.
Employee opinion surveys show that 80 percent of WMATA employees eligible to submit close-call reports feel they can submit concerns of safety to management, Requa said, without any fear of disciplinary action or retribution. The goal is to get that figure to 100 percent, he said.
Metro-North Railroad CEO Joseph Giulietti said there are things that happen in the rail industry that must be investigated, he said. For Metro-North, a rail system operating inSoutheastern New York state and points in Connecticut, the responsibility falls on the CEO to ensure the safety of the rail system.
Sometimes it takes incidents like the L’Enfant Plaza accident to make changes, Giulietti said.
“Nine times out of 10, mistakes people make are not deliberate. But how are you going to make sure that doesn’t happen again?” Giulietti said. “That’s not going to happen by the formal investigations. That’s going to happen when you actually bring them in and you have everybody sitting down talking.”
WMATA has improved its safety standards over the years, according to Federal Transit Authority Associate Administrator of Safety Oversight Thomas Littleton. Recent changes WMATA has made to their safety policies are not the “end all, be all,” Littleton said.
“What people misunderstand is that the improvements that WMATA has made are not the ‘be all, end all.’ That is not the change in the safety culture or revolution,” Littleton said. “Until you have people who embrace that, can’t change the safety culture. That’s the tough pole to put up.”
Improving safety is “tricky” for transportation organizations, Littleton said. Often organizations will set standards and ensure that they are able to be checked off annually for safety. However, he said, changing safety culture takes more than just checking off a list.
“We really don’t embrace what the spirit of the law was as opposed to the letter of the law. What this flags to me is that we’re facing a generational change,” Littleton said. “Until we get people to say this is the way we do things, we haven’t really changed things.”
The FTA released a report stating it found 54 safety concerns within WMATA’s Metrorail and Metrobus systems. They included the understaffing and undertraining of staff at WMATA’s operations control center. There are also concerns, Littleton said, about maintenance track time and identifying problems within the rail system.
WMATA will have 30 days to respond to the FTA’s safety directive, Littleton said. They will be able to provide additional information for consideration and alternative actions. After 60 days, he said, WMATA must submit its specific proposals to the FTA. Should FTA standards not be met, Littleton said, the agency will discuss punishment for WMATA.
“We don’t intend to tell them how to fix things,” Littleton said. “It will be up to them to decide what actions they are going to take.”