Audit finds safety, workplace culture issues among Metro railway operators

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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. (WDVM) — The Washington Metrorail Safety Commission has been digging into the workplace culture and policies at Metro’s Railway Operations Control Center, also known as the ROCC.

The 50-page audit was released to the public Tuesday morning, but what do the findings mean for metrorail riders?

Max Smith of WMSC says riders should know that the ROCC “is the body that controls everything a rider would experience on Metro. They decide when one train is allowed to move from one station to another. They address if there’s single tracking.”

WMSC’s CEO David Mayer says a toxic workplace environment and culture are contributing to safety issues within the ROCC.

“The ROCC environment includes distractions, fear, threats and conflicting instructions that prevent over-worked and under-trained controllers from fully and properly carrying out their duties,” Mayer said Tuesday.

The audit gets more specific, saying the “use of profanities, threats and racial, sexual or other forms of harassment are regular features of the control center’s environment.”

Mayer says he’s especially concerned about the staffing shortfall and controller fatigue.

“A review of schedules from January 1, 2020 to July 4, 2020 showed multiple controllers working more than 10 or 20 consecutive days, including stints of 26, 28 and 29 consecutive days for individual controllers in April, May and June 2020,” the audit states.

WMSC says a lack of proper training and policies along with employee turnover causes a “lack of institutional knowledge” and leadership, contributing to chaos and dysfunction in the ROCC during emergencies.

Most of these concerns aren’t new. WMSC says some of these problems have persisted for years. Mayer says even in 2020, Metro faces some of the same problems it did back in 2009, at the time of the Fort Totten Metro crash that killed several people and injured dozens more.

“One of the principal conclusions from the Fort Totten investigation was that Metro lacked a safety culture and you see those words in today’s audit, echoed where we say that Metro leadership has not created a safety culture within the ROCC,” Mayer said.

WMSC says Metro has 45 days to respond and propose corrective action plans based on the report’s 21 findings. If Metro doesn’t comply, WMSC says it is in a position to impose sanctions and fines.

The 21 findings are as follows:

  1. ROCC management contributes to a chaotic environment. Use of profanities, threats and racial, sexual or other forms of harassment are regular features of the control center’s environment, which makes it difficult for controllers to do their jobs and drives low morale and significant turnover.
  1. ROCC management attempts to manipulate safety event investigations and baselessly threatens controllers with arrest or termination.
  1. Metrorail does not record all critical ROCC communications, limiting the lessons that can be learned from safety events.
  1. There is no consistent, clear, concise, immediate and reliable Metrorail communication process for safety-critical information between Metrorail personnel and the fire liaison.
  1. Some Metrorail procedures lack the required urgency to address life-safety issues.
  1. Repeated failures to address safety issues have contributed to a culture where frontline workers no longer see any value in reporting and recording problems.
  1. WMATA does not always follow or clearly define its fatigue risk management procedures for the Rail Operations Control Center, including those limiting the length of controller shifts.
  1. Metrorail’s ROCC recruitment and retention approach is failing. Some controller trainees have left the ROCC immediately after or shortly after the training course, which is scheduled to last nine months.
  1. A high rate of staff turnover in the Rail Operations Control Center contributes to staffing challenges and a lack of positive institutional knowledge that can contribute to safety challenges.
  1. Controllers still have too many responsibilities and are frequently rushed to complete tasks by management.
  1. WMATA has failed to regularly update the Rail Operations Control Center Procedures Manual.
  1. WMATA has not reviewed SOPs or OAPs on a regular basis.
  1. Ride alongs are not effectively utilized to increase controller knowledge, contributing to a lack of controller understanding of what is actually happening on the roadway.
  1. Controllers are not provided with the full extent of training necessary to do their jobs, including sufficient familiarization with roadway operations and procedures.
  1. Aspects of ROCC training are inconsistent and must be structured. Multiple controllers reported that significant time is wasted during initial training.
  1. Required on the job training (OJT) is not carried out in a structured or standardized fashion.
  1. Not all controllers experience emergency drills. If each ROCC controller does not get this experience, it diminishes the value of the drills.
  1. The certification process for ROCC instructors, assistant superintendents, superintendents and controllers is inconsistent, not properly documented, and lacks proper controls to ensure the integrity and meaning of certification.
  1. Certification and recertification scenarios required of ROCC employees are repeated year after year, diminishing the value of the testing and training process.
  1. WMATA does not have a standardized training program for personnel working at desks such as the MOC or ROIC. Metrorail could not provide any documentation of MOC training materials, a curriculum or a training description. Metrorail provided only a study guide for the ROIC.
  1. WMATA does not have minimum training requirements for Metrorail employees or contractors who serve in the fire liaison position.

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