Napping strategy takes aim at worker fatigue

Railroad seeks improved safety and morale

Sleeping on the job has traditionally carried a negative connotation at the worksite, but for crew members at The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., in Fort Worth, TX, it is a normal part of the schedule.

It's not that these employees work longer hours than other workers, explains Jim Sabourin, Burlington Northern spokesman. "But they are prone to fatigue due to the inconsistency of their schedules. They may not know until a couple of hours in advance that they are scheduled to be on a certain train. It's tough to plan anything at all - including sleep." It also take a toll on family life, he notes.

Since the summer of 1997, crew members systemwide have been allowed to take a nap under these specific conditions:

· There must be two crew members in the cab of the locomotive (which is standard procedure).

· At least one of the two crew members must be awake.

· The train must be pulled off the main line into a siding.

· The total time frame of the nap cannot exceed 45 minutes.

Safety, quality-of-life issues

The napping strategy was initially piloted in several locations in December, 1996, after six months of planning. "We had had some high- profile derailments, and even though fatigue was not an issue in those accidents, we felt we needed to look at safety from a much more detailed perspective," recalls Sabourin. The railroad instituted a larger initiative, called the "Era of Safer Operations," of which combating fatigue was one component.

Quality of life was another important issue, notes Sabourin. "We recognized the fact that the railroad industry is more productive today than at any time in its history - the employees are more productive, and the assets are more productive," he says. "We listened to our employees over the years, and recognized we needed to improve their quality of life."

The 45-minute nap length was not arbitrary, explains Sabourin. "Our strategy was developed in cooperation with the NASA AMES Research Center, a leader in the science of sleep/rest cycles," he says. "They have found that napping, while it doesn't replace sleep, can be an effective countermeasure against fatigue." NASA's research, he explains, has shown that an individual who has napped for longer than 45 minutes is susceptible to "sleep inertia" which can actually make you drowsy.

There is no limit to the number of naps a crew member can take during the day, "But there probably aren't that many opportunities," Sabourin says.

The initial pilot program targeted several hundred employees out of a total crew population of about 11,000-12,000 - also by design. The napping strategy represented a major cultural change at Burlington Northern. "For 125 years, people were fired for napping," Sabourin notes.

Program is expanding

The program was ultimately expanded due to positive employee feedback and the railroad's belief in the NASA research, explains Sabourin. "We know this is the right thing to do."

Burlington Northern is currently conducting a pilot program for mechanical employees in the Kansas City area. "We felt this was the next logical step, because they do around the clock shift work," Sabourin says. "They are more susceptible to fatigue, and they work around heavy equipment." If it is the success Burlington Northern thinks it will be, the program will be rolled out to the entire mechanical department.

The next step would entail offering an optional scheduled napping time for third-shift engineering employees during their lunch break. "We're also looking at a pilot program for all employees at the Denver terminal," says Sabourin.

There is a chance the program will ultimately be rolled out for all employees, he says, "But that is still years ahead."

[Editor's note: For more information, contact Jim Sabourin, The Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railway Co., P.O. Box 961057, Fort Worth, TX 76161. Telephone: (817) 352-6412. Fax: (817) 352-7925.] n