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UPS, FedEx Among the Companies Who Lobby to Keep Exhausted Drivers, Pilots on the Job


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When we think of occupational hazards, two primary types of situations come to mind: people working without proper training or without proper equipment. The result can be anything from a fall to a tragic encounter with a dangerous piece of equipment. Just as dangerous, however, can be something as unassuming as fatigue, especially in the transportation industry.  This was the focus of a piece by Labor Notes co-editor Jenny Brown which explains how commonplace this serious occupational hazard is in the transportation sector and how regulations to improve work conditions have been subject to deregulation efforts and carve outs at the request of politicians’ friends in the business world.  

Among the transportation sectors hit hardest by fatigue is the railroad industry, Brown writes:

In a survey of freight train operators conducted by the Teamsters Canada Rail Conference, 96 percent said they had gone to work tired. More alarmingly, three-quarters said they fell asleep while working—in the previous month. Among those who turned down jobs because of fatigue, 43 percent said they faced investigation or discipline.

According to CSX locomotive engineer J.P. Wright, this fatigue problem is partially caused by short staffing:

The main problem with freight railroads, said Wright, is that “they’ve short-staffed everything to the bone.” So when somebody takes time off, others have to unexpectedly fill in, creating cascades of scheduling complexity.

Wright added that the penalties for overworking employees or making them work when they are not properly rested are so minimal that railroad companies often opt to simply pay the fine in order to get cargo from point A to point B.

This same problem exists in the airline industry where, despite new rules to deal with fatigue, carve outs in the law leave those most susceptible to fatigue without the intended protections. Following a plane crash on a 2009 flight from Newark to Seattle where fatigue played a role, Congress was forced to act and the standards concerning concerning fatigue were rewritten.  But UPS and FedEx lobbied hard enough to have cargo planes “carved out” of the regulation, despite cargo planes pilots being the most likely to experience fatigue problem, according to Labor Notes:

The Federal Aviation Authority revamped the fatigue rules, but then a strange thing happened, said Brian Gaudet of the Independent Pilots Association, the union representing UPS cargo pilots.
“When they were supposed to be released… instead the rules went to the OMB for 90 days,” he said.

Specifically they went to the Office of Management and Budget division known as OIRA, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. OIRA conducted a cost-benefit analysis, according to the union, even though the Congressional mandate specified that safety was the only pertinent consideration.

When the rules came back, they exempted cargo planes. Cargo plane crashes are regarded as acceptable losses, said Gaudet, “because it’s only two pilots” who would die. (The union points out that cargo planes share airspace and airports with passenger jets.)

The carve-out is all the more exasperating because cargo pilots are more likely to fly at night. Currently they can be scheduled for 16 hours of duty, night after night. Sleep problems are worsened when flights cross many time zones. UPS pilots may fly to Anchorage, Shenzen, Dubai, and Cologne, then back to Louisville.

UPS and FedEx lobbied hard for the carve-out, arguing that “the dollar value of the pilots and aircraft that would be lost in fatigue-linked crashes would be far outweighed by the higher labor costs to the industry,” according to a ProPublica report.

The shadowy OIRA office, controlled by the White House, is notorious for watering down regulations in favor of business interests.

Read Brown’s entire, important piece here.


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