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This article was published 11/1/2019 (371 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
OTTAWA — The federal government is putting the onus on rail companies to craft rules on how long staff can safely be on-shift, with Ottawa giving vague guidelines on how to update the rules it deems outdated, during a historic increase in oil being transported by train.
The plans railways have submitted to Transport Canada over the past eight years "do not reflect present-day fatigue science," reads a Dec. 20, 2018, letter obtained by the Free Press, adding to "the risk for occupational injuries and incidents."
A recent series by the Free Press revealed workers driving trains through Manitoba are often exhausted due to over-capacity bunkhouses, supervisors counting 90-minute trips to hotels as part of employees’ sleep periods, and a fear of retaliation for calling in unfit to work.
Some of those concerns are addressed in the letter, in which Brigitte Diogo, the department’s rail-safety director, outlines eight areas for improvement.
The most specific request is for rail workers who have completed 10 hours of work to be given 12 hours’ rest — instead of the current eight — when they’re relieved of duties at home. That’s to account for "commuting, social demands, nutrition and hygiene needs," so they actually sleep eight hours.
When workers finish long shifts away from home and are sleeping in guesthouses, they should be entitled to eight hours off the clock, instead of the current six, Transport Canada wrote.
Other changes are far less specific, such as split shifts. The letter acknowledges workers undertaking two shifts often can’t sleep during the break in between, because they can’t find accommodation, and it’s harder to fall asleep during daylight.
"Therefore, a maximum duty-time limitation must be established," Diogo wrote, one that includes the rest period between shifts — but she did not offer any example of what time frame would be acceptable.
Similarly, there is no change to the total amount of time railways can have someone working in a single day. The existing rules cap shifts at 12 hours, but allow for additional shifts, up to a total of 18 hours.
The letter notes performance decreases after 12 hours of work, as well as at night, and humans are effectively drunk in terms of their operating capacity after 17 hours awake. The letter advises "consideration should be given to fatigue-management methods to counteract this risk."
Clinton Marquardt works as fatigue specialist for various companies, after a decade with the Transportation Safety Board, the federal arm's-length watchdog.
He said Transport Canada is getting companies to set the actual rules because they’re more likely to follow them, instead of imposing regulations.
"TC wants industry to solve the problem themselves," he said. "If industry comes up with their own solution, then it's kind of difficult for industry to critique their solution, as they're the ones who designed it."
He said the letter could make Canada’s railroads safer, depending on how industry responds.
Marquardt noted the letter doesn’t explicitly cite the risk of "circadian rhythm desynchronization," when constantly changing sleep schedules upset how the body regulates temperature, digestion and other systems, leaving someone perpetually fatigued. However, he said together, the proposed changes could avoid workers from getting the condition.
For example, the letter suggests railways should pay attention to employees’ travel time to and from a shift. However, it doesn’t prescribe new rules on what’s called "deadheading." Existing regulations say traveling to a shift from a railway guesthouse must count as being on-duty under fatigue rules — but the same commute at the end of the day isn’t tabulated as duty time.
CN Rail workers have previously complained their bunkhouse in Rivers, Man., is often over-capacity, leaving them to sleep on couches and kitchen floors. Some are billeted 40 kilometres away in a Brandon hotel, with the round trip counted as part of their sleep time.
Diogo admits the current rules "do not fully account for additional hours of wakefulness," adding "consideration needs to be given" to research around fatigue, but she stops short of factoring the end-of-day commute as part of how fatigue is calculated.
Railways must undertake two months of consulting with those impacted by whatever policies companies come up with, before sending those rules to Ottawa by May 19 for approval.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau started consultations in November 2017 on updating railway fatigue rules.
Marquardt saw "probably zero progress in any fatigue approach" in his time at the TSB, from 2003 to 2012, but says industry has taken the made more progress in the past two years.
He hopes railways implement the rules before the May deadline, which will mark 18 months in this process.
"It think this is a reasonable timeline, given the speed of government, he said. "From a risk perspective, I'd like to see it happen in the next couple of months."