Recognizing the Dream

Tony RamosIn the 1987 Oliver Stone film, Wall Street, the main character, Gordon Gecko, played by Michael Douglas, utters the memorable line, “Greed is good.” For many people, that line epitomized the times and sentiments of the 1980s. While most people do not agree that greed is good, few people would equate greed with death; however, based on an article in the April 24 edition of the Los Angeles Times, greed can be associated with fatalities.

The LA Times reported that train accidents caused by human error are rising. Based on Federal investigations and records maintained by the National Transportation Safety Board, many train crashes can be attributed to overworked and exhausted crews and situations where the engineer and conductor have even fallen asleep. According to Diz D. Francisco, a veteran engineer and union official from Bakersfield, Calif, who works for the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp, and who was quoted in the article, “Engineers and conductors sleep on trains. Anyone who tells you different is not being straight with you.”

The Times reported that train accidents caused by human error have increased 60% since 1996, and while the government does not track fatigue-related crashes, safety experts agree that exhausted crews are partly to blame. It is not uncommon for engineers, brake operators, and conductors to work 60 to 70 hours or more per week. To make matters worse, their start times can be any time during the day or night, which severely disrupts their sleep patterns. With no set work or rest schedule, train operators, who sometimes work 12-hour days, 6 days a week, often show up for work exhausted. According to the article in the Times, many railroad employees liken on-the-job fatigue to being in a constant state of jet lag.

While the initial reaction is to place the blame directly on greedy company executives, railroad unions share an equal part of the blame. Over the past 2 decades, hiring has not kept pace with the increase in rail freight volume. Since 1991, volume has increased 4.4% per year, while overall railroad employment has declined more than 25% since 1990. Corporate mergers and cutbacks during the 1990s have resulted in fewer railroad employees. At the same time, railroad unions have pushed to allow their members to work long hours in order to maximize earnings. Based on overtime pay, engineers can make close to $100,000 a year. Put this all together and you have the Perfect Storm.

Fortunately, efforts are already under way to reduce the number of hours worked and days worked without time off, as well as allowing naps for those on duty. Railroad companies and labor unions have formed such organizations as the Work Rest Task Force as a way to avoid government intervention. In 1996, the North American Rail Alertness Partnership was born. The federal government has even entered the equation with its own efforts via the Federal Railroad Administration. While voluntary efforts by the railroad companies and rail unions are certainly to be commended, until greed is completely eliminated from society, don’t hold your breath; mandatory guidelines for ensuring that railroad crews are rested and alert need to be implemented in order to reduce the number of accidents related to human error.

Getting companies and individuals to recognize that there are still only 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and that sleep needs to be an integral part of our 24/7 existence, remains one of the mission statements of sleep medicine professionals and our industry. Curtailing greed will go a long way to help recognize the dream.

Tony Ramos
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