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Union, Metro Management Disagree Over 'Safety Culture' At WMATA

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Metro's union leader says that transit agency's management hasn't done enough to promote a safety culture.
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Metro's union leader says that transit agency's management hasn't done enough to promote a safety culture.

The D.C. region’s transit authority continues to lack a safety culture, failing to address the needs of its employees with the same urgency as it has for passengers in the wake of the fatal smoke incident at L’Enfant Plaza, according to the head of the union for 8,000 Metro workers.

Jackie Jeter, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 689, addressed the Metro board of directors’ safety committee on Thursday after a quarterly report revealed the authority’s employee injury rate jumped 56 percent in the first quarter compared to the same period in 2014. More than a third of the injuries were slips, trips, or falls.

Even when it comes to something as simple as clearing snow and ice from the places where employees work, Metro is failing, Jeter said.

“Making sure that the same due diligence is given to the employees that is given to the customers, I think is part of our problem,” she said. “In order to establish a right and just safety culture, people have to feel that their lives are just as important as those they carry every day, especially in the transportation industry. That is one of the glaring points. It’s not a question that cannot be answered.”

Since Carol Glover of Alexandria died and more than 80 other passengers were injured aboard a Virginia-bound Yellow Line train stuck inside a smoke-filled tunnel on Jan. 12, the term “safety culture” has come up often around Metro. Those words usually relate to the experience of commuters, but recently the ATU publicly is asserting itself in the discussion.

On multiple occasions Jeter has said her members suffer in a climate of distrust and retaliation. For instance, rail workers face long suspensions for mistakes on the job.

“That doesn’t necessarily mean the person didn’t do something wrong,” Jeter said in an interview. “We understand that. But if you are trying to develop a safety culture, you are not looking for the wrong. You are looking for how to correct the situation and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Metro officials disputed Jeter’s claim that the transit authority lacks a safety culture.

“I would respectfully disagree with the union. However, that being said, I think it is very important for us to listen to the union, to understand what their issues are,” said Rob Troup, Metro’s deputy general manager.

Troup defended the policy of punishing employees who make mistakes.

“We put 954 trains out [each rush hour]. We carry 700,000 people to their work and jobs and recreational activities, we take that very, very seriously. We have to be in a heavy rules compliance environment,” he said.

“If you disregard the rules, bad things can happen. That being said, we want to find ways to ensure employees first and foremost comply with the rules. We want to find every means and method to be able to do that. If discipline is a way to do that, but we continually look for different ways to be able to ensure employees are complying with the rules.”

Metro has established a close-call reporting system with the ATU through the federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics that allows employees to anonymously — without fear of retaliation — report potential safety hazards. Workers are gaining confidence their anonymity will in fact be protected when reporting, Jeter said.

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