Agency studies risks of worker fatigue

Metro has overspent its budget for overtime by 62 percent so far this year as it tries to handle the conflicting challenges of reducing dangerous worker fatigue while tackling a backlog of maintenance and repair work.

The transit agency spent $9.2 million more than it budgeted for the first quarter of the fiscal year that began in July, according to a report slated to be presented to board members on Thursday.

The report said that was an improvement from the beginning of the quarter, as officials have been putting in controls to reduce the extra hours since July, when the agency spent 87 percent more than budgeted for overtime. The high costs came as Metro said it dealt with heat-related incidents, repairs to rail car air-conditioners, door problems and brake discs that have been falling off cars. By September, overtime expenses were 28 percent over budget, the report said.

The cost of overtime is not as much of an issue for the agency as what is causing it and what it means for passenger and worker safety. Vacancies have reduced salary costs to offset the overtime expenses.

"The question, of course, is how did it get so far out of whack?" said Mortimer Downey, who heads the Metro board's safety committee.

The spikes come as Metro is trying to reduce dangerous fatigue among its workers.

Sixty-seven Metrobus drivers were caught sleeping on camera while driving over a 19-month period, including one driver who was busted twice, as first reported by The Washington Examiner in October.

A preliminary Metro study of bus driver fatigue from July found that some bus drivers are working more than 20 hours a day, four more than allowed under Metro's rules. Metro studied similar fatigue issues on the rail system last year after TheExaminerdocumented workers logging 16-hour days for weeks on end.

But the agency said in a report released Monday that only 0.4 percent of bus operators' work hours resulted in fatigue that exceeds the levels established by a federal railroad research model. Only 8 percent of the shifts were scheduled for more than 12 hours, and less than 1 percent were greater than 16 hours.

However, Downey said it's important not to minimize 0.4 percent if one of those tired bus operators causes a deadly crash. "That's one of the reasons for saying we shouldn't schedule people for extraordinary hours of overtime," he said.

The agency also noted that the findings show that the number of hours worked isn't the only cause of fatigue. Instead, the time of day can be an issue if workers are out of cycle with normal patterns.

The agency said it is trying to better report and monitor overtime, plus plan work during regularly scheduled shifts when possible. It plans to track workers' sleep patterns over a two-week period and budget $5.5 million in the upcoming fiscal year for a fatigue management program.

Last year, Metro said it planned to limit track workers to no more than 14 hours per day by the end of 2012. By 2014, Metro plans to extend that limit to all train operators.