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METRO SERIES: Metro union leader says workers afraid to report safety problems

MetroFenceWASHINGTON, D.C. - Metro union workers claim Metro management is the biggest problem in guaranteeing safety.

Raymond Jackson, who represents Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, said Metro workers say they are afraid to report safety problems because supervisors react negatively when they do. Jackson, executive vice president of Local 689, said instances in which Metro workers fail to report safety concerns occur often. For many, not reporting safety issues is becoming second-nature.

“We’ve been dealing with it for so long, we just deal with it,” Jackson said. “You just deal with per se not working safe.”

ATU Local 689 spokesperson David Stephen said the union would not violate Metro policy through facilitating interviews with frontline workers for this story.

“It is against their company policy,” Stephen said. “They can be fired for that. You’re asking our members to speak to you so they can get fired. I will not, absolutely not, do that.”

Metro spokesperson Sherri Ly said all Metro workers must report any unsafe conditions they witness because it is part of working for Metro.

“It is important to note that every Metro employee has a responsibility for ensuring safety, and it is incumbent on anyone observing a safety concern to report it,” Ly said in an email.

Upon learning some Metro workers hesitate to tell their supervisors about safety problems, she listed options workers can use to report their concerns as part of Metro’s pledge to make safety a priority. One reporting method, she said, allows workers to stop performing a task.

“Workers in safety critical positions can stop any job by declaring a ‘good faith challenge,’ which stops work until the safety concern is resolved,” Ly said.

Ly said workers can also choose to tell their supervisor about their safety concern or anonymously submit their concerns through Metro’s third-party “close call” service. They can also phone in the issue through Metro’s Safety Department hotline, which operates 24 hours a day.

Metro managers are making changes, Ly said, as part of improving safety, and that the general manager spoke directly to all managers in a meeting to say he wouldn’t accept the way things were done in the past when it comes to not addressing safety problems.

“The safety of Metro customers and employees is our absolute highest priority, and fostering a culture of safety is something that we do every day,” Ly said. “In addition to these reporting methods, Metro has enhanced training programs, implemented controls for fatigue, and improved processes and procedures.”

When asked whether safety is part of Metro’s present culture, she referred a reporter back to her statement.

Jackson said he believes fear of upsetting the supervisor or mid- to upper-level manager keeps front line employees from reporting safety problems.

“You may know as a worker … that what they’re asking you to do is unsafe, but you also know the consequences of what will happen if you make that manager mad,” said Jackson.

Jackson gave an example from his own time at Metro. He said he once took a safety concern to his supervisor, who subsequently assigned him to power-wash dirty buses in a train-cleaning pit - a task usually assigned to lower-level workers. Jackson said he interpreted that assignment as his supervisor’s way of “retaliating,” against him for reporting his safety concern. When his co-workers saw him working in the personal inspection pit cleaning buses, they asked him what he did wrong that would have irritated the supervisor.

To make a manager “mad,” Jackson said, “Just to question an assignment that he gave you.”

During Metro’s investigation of the East Falls Church derailment in 2016, WMATA track walker “JoJo” Azurin told Metro interviewer Robert Davis, of Metro’s Safety Department, he felt rushed to complete inspections, according to a transcript of the interview provided by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Azurin said his supervisors often assigned him to conduct more inspection than he had time to complete- either properly or perform them at all.

“Because they want the numbers,” Azurin said. “It happens like that sometimes.”

If the track walkers completed fewer than the expected number of track inspections, for example inspect six or eight switches instead of 12, the supervisors found it unacceptable.

“They mad,” Azurin said, according to the transcript. “They're not satisfied. You do your job already. You give them the report and they're not satisfied what you have done. They want more.”

This strict schedule required hastily completing the inspections, Azurin said.

“They want the report done quick… And in a lousy way and – and not in the good proper way to do it,” Azurin added.

Davis told Azurin he was interviewing him because Azurin was one of the workers responsible for inspecting the tracks near East Falls Church Station prior to when the train derailed, according to the transcript.

Azurin told Davis he wondered why, on the occasions when he documented a moderate to serious defect, the supervisor didn’t have the problem fixed. He was concerned about why Metro didn’t contact the track walkers who reported problems that often signified a larger safety issue.

“We do our job,” Azurin said. “We go over there, check that -- check that switches, every single switches, you know, and we turn in this for real to them, supervisor. And I don't know that this – all info right here, didn't pay attention that this already yellow, already going out of (inaudible). It's in here. It's reported here. We turn in and sign in and give it to them. Why they don't say, hey, JoJo, what's happening, man?”

Azurin’s remarks are similar to what former Metro Inspector General Helen Lew and her staff reported in 2010. Lew informed then-General Manager Richard Sarles via letter that supervisors were expecting track inspectors to inspect a long distance of track, and the inspectors did not have enough time to do it. Sarles also knew that workers were afraid to report safety concerns and that workers felt unsafe in their working environments, according to a 2010 memorandum. Lew retired from Metro a few months ago, Metro officials said.

Lew cited a 2010 report from her office in which her staff reported many workers who inspected and maintained tracks and track structures said they felt unsafe in their work environments. Authors of the Office of Inspector General report said employees claimed their superiors threatened punishments when they reported safety risks.

Participants in the OIG report, which Lew called a Control Self- Assessment, said they were concerned about supervisors disobeying safety rules, according to the report.

“Safety rules are often not followed by some supervisors, resulting in unsafe conditions,” authors of the internal report said.

One Metro employee said in the Control Self-Assessment that he received an assignment to inspect a tunnel known as a culvert, used for water under tracks, at Fort Totten Station and to determine whether the culvert was “structurally sound” after part of the tunnel collapsed. No one installed lumber or metal pieces in the 40-foot-deep section to make sure the section the worker was inspecting didn’t collapse. No one completed the required air quality test prior to the worker entering the tunnel.

“As he was being lowered into the manhole to the culvert, which was approximately 40 feet under the tracks, he heard someone question whether they had conducted an air quality test as required, and the response he heard was ‘oh no, we forgot,’” according to the report. “Instead of pulling him out and checking the air, he overheard someone say, ‘he’s already in there now.’”

The worker alleged his supervisor never ensured the area was safe for the worker and the supervisor didn’t make sure the workers had the appropriate permit to complete the inspection.

Authors of the OIG report said those actions by the supervisors violated Metro protocol, which says the supervisor must ensure the work area is safe for the workers.

“The permit was obtained after the fact,” according to the report. “The participant stated that a representative from the Department of System Safety and Environmental Management came out and stated that he had granted the permit, but the supervisor had failed to accurately explain the depth of the hole in question. The issue was brought to the attention of the supervisor, and he responded that the employee did not have to worry about his safety, because he would not be going back into the manhole.”

Authors of the OIG report said some supervisors and managers also told the office of inspector general during the Control Self-Assessment they had some practices which they knew to be unsafe for the workers.

Of the workers in the study who followed through and reported any safety concerns, several said supervisors told them they would be disciplined or fired if the workers reported the issues, according to the report.

Authors of the report said CSA participants described two separate instances of managers telling workers to violate Metro safety protocol by operating a man-lift in the presence of “high winds.” Neither employee’s supervisor said the employee could stop doing the job when he said he was worried about safety.

In the first case, the report describes two higher-ups threatening retaliation against the employee if he filed complaints.

“The man-lift was well above the area structure and rocking in the wind,” the OIG report said. “Because he felt unsafe, he asked the supervisor to lower him, and the supervisor then threatened his job. When the employee called his superintendent and said he wanted to file a complaint against his supervisor, the superintendent threatened to cite him for tardiness. The employee stated that this is why he does not report safety issues to his manager.”

The second employee in the report said his supervisor insisted he complete a task involving a man-lift, despite the employee’s safety concerns.

“An employee was directed to use a man-lift when, contrary to safety rules, there were high winds,” according to the report. “The employee voiced his concerns with his supervisor, but the supervisor directed the employee to do the job anyway. When the employee refused, and contacted Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the job was cancelled for the day due to high winds.”

OIG report authors cited pressure from senior managers and lack of adequate workers as issues that could lead to safety incidents.

“Senior managers require mid-level managers to meet established goals even when they are aware of existing staffing shortages,” authors of the report said. “This causes mid-level managers to take short cuts, which undermines the integrity and accountability of WMATA’s reporting systems and increases the risk of safety-related incidents.”

Current Metro General Manager Paul Wiedefeld told a Metro board committee he fired several employees in the track inspection department in December 2016 in relation to falsified inspection reports, following an investigation he ordered by Metro general counsel into a train derailment in July 2016.

Trap Thomas, another track walker whom Davis interviewed for the investigation, said at a press conference earlier this year that Metro fired him after accusing him of falsifying track inspection reports, offering a copy of a letter to him from Metro.

ATU Local 689 representatives, including President Jackie Jeter, attributed the falsified records and the safety incidents such as two derailments and a fatal smoke incident that injured dozens, in the last few years to systemic issues and a lack of safety culture.

In an Office of Inspector General report from 2015, which recently became available through a Washington Post Public Access to Records request, then-Inspector General Lew said an investigation into structure inspection records dating back three years revealed that structure inspectors had been using old photos of structure problems and copying measurements from old reports.

Such falsifying of inspection reports has been present on-and-off for decades, as evidenced in the 2015 Metro investigation report and a 1997 story by Washington Times reporter Jim Keary, “Metro chief hits cover-up culture of Metro system.”

Keary wrote that Washington Times reporters obtained copies of inspection reports for escalators and found evidence that showed managers falsified reports earlier in 1997. He said then-Metro General Manager Richard White launched an investigation after seeing documents with conflicting information acquired by the Washington Times, an investigation which led to the firing of four top-level officials: “John J. Flynn, general superintendent of the Office of Plant Maintenance; his assistant general superintendent, Connie L. Williams; Donald L. Kloehn, superintendent of plant and equipment maintenance; and his assistant superintendent, John Weston.” White also had inspectors shut off and inspect every escalator in the entire system (at the time, 524), an action which workers told the Times was unprecedented.

“‘What White did was unprecedented,’” Keary quoted an unnamed worker as saying. “‘He took top managers with company cars and big mortgages and put them out on the street. It’s refreshing to see that.’”

Keary said Metro workers spent a few days inspecting all the escalators.

In 2016, after Metro investigators found inconsistent information in their inquiry into the July 29 East Falls Church derailment, Wiedefeld called for a police investigation, according to D.C. City Council member and Metro Board Chairman Jack Evans in August 2016.

Keary said he interviewed Metro employees who said Metro front line workers including escalator mechanics and escalator inspectors said they were afraid to report safety problems for fear of punishment, demotion or firings from WMATA management. Keary also reported NTSB said the year before in a report about a fatal Metro crash that Metro had a culture that hardly allowed employees to make comments or list concerns to management.

Keary said the Metro investigation showed the supervisors and managers reported repairs and inspections occurred when they had not, and incorrectly gave the escalators favorable ratings on reports, to meet Metro quotas.

According to Helen Lew’s 2010 report on Metro’s Office of Track Structures Systems Maintenance (TSSM) impressions of safety, workers told the OIG of behaviors similar to those Keary reported in 1997. According to the report, Metro managers were closing work orders in the data entry system known as MAXIMO without confirming employees had completed the work.

“Work order tickets are being closed on MAXIMO prior to the completion of the work,” staff in the office of inspector general said in the report. “According to the participants, this is due to inadequate staffing and pressure from upper management. Managers are also closing out repair tickets without ensuring the necessary repairs have been completed.”

Keary said the inconsistencies in inspection reports resulted from distrust that dated back years.

“What (Safety Chief) Mr. Goodine quickly found – besides the doctored records—was an atmosphere of distrust, cover-ups and cronyism that grew through the 21-year history of the transit system,” Keary wrote.

Today, Local 689 leaders say Metro leaders still need to build that trust. Jackson said Wiedefeld needs to have a sit-down meeting with front line Metro workers so Wiedefeld can hear what might be contributing to what the NTSB in 1996 called a lack of a safety culture.

“If they really wanted to fix the problem they would sit down with the Union,” Jackson said in August.

The NTSB, in its report on a fatal 1996 crash that took the life of Metro train operator Darrel Callens, also said Metro needed to do a better job communicating with its workers. It recommended after the 1996 crash WMATA establish measures to make sure workers receive, read and understand all safety bulletins, memorandums, special orders and notices “related their responsibilities.”

The same concerns emerged in the NTSB report on the Fort Totten incident, even though WMATA had reported to NTSB that it made changes as a result of the 1996 report.

“As revealed during this investigation, however, WMATA has not effectively addressed the issues raised in the 1996 investigation of the Shady Grove accident,” Fort Totten NTSB investigation report authors said. “Although, according to public hearing testimony, WMATA does require employees to sign for updated bulletins and notices, the agency does not have mechanisms in place to ensure that the employees understand or act on the information.

“WMATA’s demonstrated deficiencies with regard to identifying safety concerns, distributing safety-critical information across the various affected divisions of the organization, and enacting effective safety policies are symptomatic of a general lack of importance assigned to safety management functions across the organization.”

Employees told the NTSB they were concerned about how management communicated.

“As early as 1996, in its investigation of a Metrorail train collision at the Shady Grove station, the NTSB noted that WMATA employees reported a perceived lack of communication and a sense of information isolation within the organization,” NTSB officials said.

Local 689 President Jeter said she first noticed a problem with Metro’s safety culture during and immediately following Callens’ 1996 death. Jeter said the 1996 crash was different from some of the other fatal incidents that occurred during her employment with WMATA-- it stood out in her memory as the first time she knew there wasn’t a safety culture.

According to the NTSB report on the incident, a train operator said something was wrong but the operations control center employee who heard the report didn’t want to risk losing his own job.

“I was actually working on the railroad the night he passed away,” Jeter said. “That’s one of, I think, the most horrific times because that was the times the operator themselves was telling central control that they needed to do something different (from) a (command) from a manager that sat down in an office at Jackson Graham (Metro Headquarters).”

The culture at WMATA played a role in Callens’ death, Jeter said. The NTSB said something similar in its investigation report on the accident.

“Because that controller (in headquarters) did not listen to that operator, that operator lost his life,” Jeter said. “That was the beginning of I think of a broader look of instructions, rules how those instructions affect operators, and the operators’ ability to push back when rules are not made in the best interest of them.”

Jeter said many managers and supervisors around the time of Callens’ death had a mentality in which they believed workers were not supposed to question supervisors. She said that attitude continues to exist in some places in Metro.

“I know that WMATA is still dealing with the whole mentality … that ‘I am in charge and you are my subordinate and therefore you do what I say,’” Jeter said.

That must change before Metro can have a culture of safety, she said. She said Metro needs to have trust in the form of “understanding” between workers and supervisors and mid- to upper-level managers. If Wiedefeld or future general managers dissolve the “mentality,” WMATA may develop a culture of safety, Jeter believes.

In a culture of safety, “There is the fact that the worker understands or the manager understands that that worker knows their job,” Jeter said. “And they’re not going to bring them for something that is not serious, or something that should not be taken seriously as far as looking into it and making sure it is taken care of and that must happen. I think that’s the first thing.”

Jeter said front line workers’ attitudes started to change after the 1996 crash, but the safety culture did not improve immediately. Sometimes it is a matter of the general manager terminating employees who have the “mentality,” she described.

“Changes were made but it was very slow,” Jeter said. “The manager, within a couple years, was replaced. The mentality ended somewhat, but not enough to make, I think, a significance-- a significant difference. It did start operators (of trains and buses) to question a bit more.”

Jeter said the “mentality” of management is slowly going away, allowing for the empowerment of workers to take a stand when they discover something is unsafe for them.

She agreed with Metro’s stated position that workers were responsible for reporting any safety problems and for calling out instructions that seemed dangerous.

“The questioning I think is good,” Jeter said. “I think that any person who works for an organization or within the confines of an organization has the responsibility to question something that is told to them, something that is given to them that does not make sense.”

However, there is still something wrong with the way some managers, supervisors and superintendents respond when workers tell them about unsafe conditions and safety issues, Jeter said.

“I think what is missing is management fails to realize they have the responsibility to listen and to react,” said Jeter, regarding Metro’s culture.

The fact that the issues of safety in inspections and reporting problems persist is not going unnoticed. Officials from two federal agencies have said they were dissatisfied with changes Metro general managers and officials had made in the last seven to eight years.

Federal Transit Administration Administrator Carolyn Flowers, in an August 2016, report criticized Metro on multiple grounds for inadequately training its track inspection department employees and having several safety projects not being completed. (The 2010 OIG report on TSSM also found that workers, supervisors and superintendents alike said Metro workers in the department received inadequate training.) Flowers said the Metro Safety Oversight body, the Tri-State Oversight Committee, requested Metro make improvements years earlier. Flowers said in the report dated Aug. 8, 2016, FTA investigators looking into “track integrity” found multiple frontline employees and supervisors in the track inspection department had received inadequate training, and some inspectors failed to identify defects in the tracks. She directed Wiedefeld to create a plan to both improve the quality of training and address the inadequate training workers had received.

Flowers noted improvements Metro administrators had made, but said those changes were not enough.

“While WMATA has taken a number of critical steps to address safety deficiencies, it must improve its track safety protocols and training programs,” she said. “In addition, greater coordination is needed between WMATA track and maintenance personnel to prioritize work and adhere to established standards, including conditions that warrant speed restrictions or single tracking.”

The Sentinel reported Wiedefeld had already begun the procurement process to find contractors to re-write the track inspection manual and to re-train the track inspector employees when he received the letter from Flowers. Wiedefeld has since hired contractors trained in Federal Railway Administration regulations to fill in for Metro track inspectors while they undergo re-training under the new manual.

Then- U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said problems FTA investigators found in that investigation were “significant safety concerns.”

“FTA’s comprehensive investigation into WMATA’s track inspection and maintenance program has revealed significant safety concerns,” said Foxx.  “FTA has directed Metrorail to take specific action to correct these deficiencies, and continues to provide vigorous oversight of Metrorail’s safety efforts in other areas of operations.” 

Wiedefeld continues to encourage managers to pursue safety above all. After the East Falls Church Station derailment on July 29, 2016- which resulted in two people being transported to the hospital, including a man suffering a minor head injury, he received a briefing from the Metro Safety Department about their investigation. The things he learned in the briefing spurred him to order Metro’s police department Metro Transit Police to conduct a criminal investigation of the track inspection department.

“Based on some of the comments made by Metro employees regarding inspection activities, I felt it was necessary to refer the matter to Metro Transit Police for their review, which I did on August 18,” Wiedefeld told the Metro board of Directors’ Safety Committee Dec. 15.

He said Metro general counsel assisted by an external law firm with criminal investigation experience, investigated the situation, too. Although Metro Transit Police didn’t arrest anyone following its investigation, Wiedefeld requested advice on the matter from the external law firm that helped Metro general counsel “review this matter.”

Wiedefeld said he believed behavior and attitudes in workers and managers revealed by the Metro-hired law firm and Metro general counsel’s review was “disturbing.”

He said at the meeting he wouldn’t tolerate falsification of inspection reports. He fired several people for falsifying or encouraging falsification of reports.

“This review revealed a disturbing level of indifference, lack of accountability, and flagrant misconduct in a portion of Metro’s track department which is completely intolerable,” Wiedefeld told the committee.

He verbally scorned managers and superintendents as well as the workers who inspected the tracks. He said that supervisors or mid-level managers might have had a role in the falsifications.

“Further, it is reprehensible that any supervisor or mid-level manager would tolerate or encourage this behavior, or seek to retaliate against those who objected,” Wiedefeld said.

“It is also entirely unacceptable to me that any employee went along with this activity, rather than exercise a safety challenge, or any of the multiple avenues available to protect themselves, their coworkers, and the riding public,”

Wiedefeld has disciplined or fired nearly half of WMATA’s track inspection department, as of his Dec. 15 public remarks at the board Safety Committee meeting.

Wiedefeld also fired a fan inspector in relation to the January 2015 L’Enfant Plaza smoke incident. The NTSB found falsifying reports and managers signing blank inspection forms in this case. However, the inspector, Seyoum Haile, was reinstated by ruling of an arbitration panel- one of the unions’ tools for advocating for their members in employee firing cases. Wiedefeld said he did not want the inspector to get his job back.

Jeter said Aug. 7 Metro and the unions “have a long way to go” before they can say Metro has a culture of being safe. However, she feels Metro safety is improving with the firing of some of the people perpetuating the wrong culture. She said for Metro to have a culture of safety requires trust between managers and frontline workers, such as track inspectors, mechanics, train operators and bus operators, whom her union represents.

“Safety culture is changing,” Jeter said. “There is a level that’s being done. Are we there yet? No. Are we in the process of getting there? I’d say yes.”

She said she agreed with the idea that frontline employees may not be following Metro rules, and added that managers may be doing the same.

“I think that there is. I don’t think that we’re there yet,” Jeter said. “I don’t think that everyone who has a certain mentality is gone, nor do I think a worker (every department is doing what they’re supposed to be doing) all the time.”

But she said she believes Metro should create additional measures specifically to hold managers accountable.

“(There are) procedures in place to catch the employee doing what they’re not supposed to do,” said Jeter. “There’s not as much measures in place catching the managers doing what they’re not supposed to do.”

Last modified onWednesday, 20 September 2017 16:41
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