Union members hold information picket in Edmonton
(Canadian OH&S News) — Railroad workers with the Canadian National Railway Company (CN) are attempting to bring public awareness to the issue of chronic workplace fatigue in the industry. A group of CN employees — including engineers, conductors and yardmen — with Teamsters Canada Rail Conference Division 796 participated in an information picket in Edmonton’s Grand Trunk Park on Oct. 5.
The rally in Edmonton was intended to bring attention to the prevalence of fatigue and long working hours, as well as the safety risks inherent in them, according to Teamsters national president Doug Finnson.
“I think it’s a fantastic thing for them to do,” said Finnson about the information picket, explaining that the workers wanted to raise awareness of the problem in a positive way. “So what better way than a nonviolent, nonaggressive information picket?”
Don Ashley, the union’s national legislative director, told COHSN that fatigue in the rail industry is a national issue that affects not just CN employees, but also those with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CP).
“There are some issues that are going on with CN and CP that we wanted to bring to everyone’s attention,” said Ashley. “So you may see similar-type information sessions throughout the country. Edmonton was the first.”
Ashley explained that the problem has a lot to do with scheduling. Although worker assignments are booked in advance, work shifts may change unexpectedly, with employees often unable to get sufficient rest between shifts.
“The train lineups are terrible, and they’ve been terrible for years,” he said. “You can anticipate when you’re going to get called to work, but that moves ahead or back ten or 12 hours.” It is nearly impossible for an employee to manage rest breaks, said Ashley, “when you don’t know when you’re going to get called.”
CN declined to comment specifically on the rally, but Kate Fenske, its manager of media and community relations for western Canada, said that the corporation was aware of the workers’ grievances.
“CN is committed to running a safe railway, and we’ll be discussing last week’s event with senior union leaders,” said Fenske, referring to the information picket. “We don’t have anything further to add.”
Finnson said that fatigue had become an inescapable aspect of rail work in Canada. “Our members don’t sit down every couple of weeks and then talk about it because it happens to be an interesting subject. They live in the world of the railroad, and many of them have worked for many years,” he said.
“It’s a 24/7 rail operation, and so if people think that chronic fatigue doesn’t exist, then they’re ignorant. And I don’t mean that they’re ignorant people; they’re ignorant of that subject. If they just say that, ‘Well, you’ve had 36 hours off; why are you not rested?’ The minimum that you need is two consecutive nights in bed to offset. That’s just proven.”
Even when a worker does manage to get two straight nights of sleep, added Finnson, “that’s not a magic switch. That doesn’t turn off the previous 76 months of chronic fatigue.”
Both Finnson and Ashley pointed out the labour-relations process informally known as “Work now, grieve later” as a factor in the fatigue problem as well.
“Even though we have the provision to ask for rest after ten hours in our collective agreement, the company can ignore that, and then we have to proceed with a grievance,” said Ashley. “So it doesn’t do anything to mitigate the situation at the time.”
“It’s really infuriating to our worker, who perceives his health and safety as the issue,” said Finnson. “You give your employer sufficient notice, hours and hours of notice, and say, ‘Hey, at this certain point, I’m going to need rest.’ And so what happens is, you get to that point, and then a manager says, ‘Okay, you’ve got to keep going.’”
Finnson added that some managers had resorted to bullying workers into excessive work hours and even disciplining employees who had complained. “It’s definitely happening at CP, but at CN, there are still a few examples and still a few situations where the members feel that that’s the case,” he said. “But I can’t speak with certainty about that.”
An anonymous CP employee told COHSN in May that his employer had refused to accommodate him when he had booked unfit to work because of extreme fatigue last year.
“They said I had to go in for an investigation,” the worker claimed. “Usually, investigations, they’re used to intimidate employees. You could be questioned for seven, ten hours straight. And they ask you all kinds of inappropriate questions about your personal life and whatnot. And then usually afterwards, harsh discipline follows.”
The employee said that he’d taken time off to seek medical attention, but that he could not get his job back, even after his benefits had run out. “They don’t tell me anything. What they tell me is that, ‘We just have no positions available,’ and they just keep you in a state of limbo.”
But Peter Edwards, CP’s vice president of human resources and labour relations, denied that the railway disciplined employees who booked unfit.
“They’re entitled to do so under each of the collective agreements, and it’s a right that we defend,” he said. “It’s a right that is exercised several thousand times a year by employees.” Edwards added that CP rail workers were entitled to make their own schedules and often chose to work long hours in order to take more time off later.
Finnson disagreed. Whereas CN was taking measures to address chronic fatigue, he said, “CP’s management is more interested in attacking the workers and blaming the workers for everything.”