Downey cites safety concern after Examiner details long hours worked

Metro officials came under fire from the agency's safety committee on Thursday for having employees work long overtime hours, with some logging as many as 16 hours per day for weeks on end.

"After so many days, people really do need to take a day off," Metro board member Mortimer Downey said.

The concerns were raised in response to a story in the Monday issue of The Washington Examiner that found the 10 employees who logged the most extra hours in January and February all worked more than an extra full-time job's worth of overtime on top of their regular schedules.

Safety equipment hits track equipment
Metro safety equipment struck other equipment it was supposed to help safeguard on the Red Line early Thursday, the agency said.
Two flat train cars carrying pump and water equipment struck a contractor's grinding machine around 2 a.m. outside the Medical Center stop, Metro Chief Safety Officer James Dougherty said.
No workers were reported injured in the low-speed crash, he said. It was not immediately clear how much damage it caused when the pump equipment traveling about 3 to 5 mph hit the stationary grinder. The grinder's door where the operator sits was damaged, Dougherty said.
The pump mechanism is supposed to work closely with the grinder to keep the area moist to prevent dust and sparks as the machine grinds down the rail during the track work.
But they are not supposed to hit each other. Dougherty said investigators are trying to determine where the breakdown happened, such as looking at whether hand signals were properly used. -- Kytja Weir

One construction inspector earned more than $32,000 in two months by working the equivalent of 16-hour days every single day in the period for which Metro provided data.

Metro Deputy General Manager Dave Kubicek said the long hours were needed to help the short-staffed agency meet safety recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board.

But board members said they worried that those efforts might be putting workers and the system more at risk unless action was taken.

"We'll have recommendations in this area if we don't do it," Downey said.

It also became clear on Thursday that the full cost of all the overtime is not known even inside Metro. The agency spent $62 million on overtime through March, exceeding the $48 million budgeted for the entire year even though three months of the fiscal year remain, said Chief Financial Officer Carol Dillon Kissal.

However, that covers only the operating budget. Overtime on capital projects, such as track work or major upgrades, is not included in those figures nor broken out in the capital budget.

"So it's basically buried in the capital budget?" Downey asked.

Downey, chairman of the agency's safety committee, said the primary concern about overtime was not the financial effect but rather the safety implications. The issue is especially important to the former U.S. deputy secretary of transportation, who helped make some of the federal rules for worker fatigue in other transportation modes.

"When I hear someone is working 16 hour days, seven days a week, well, that's a recipe for disaster," Downey said in an interview after the meeting.

There are no federal rules for how many hours a transit worker can log before needing time off. Kubicek said the general rule of thumb for track workers is 16 hours. But there is no limit on how many consecutive days they can work, he said.

Metro officials repeatedly noted that construction inspectors and track work supervisors, who made up eight of the top 10 overtime workers, don't do manual labor.

But Downey said the issue is mental. If you look at the research, he said, people start to lose clarity and focus after 13 or 14 hours of work yet often don't realize it. Fatigued inspectors may be just as much of a safety problem if their jobs are to make sure the work is done correctly, he said.