BART’s safety culture slammed at Assembly hearing

Pub date November 12, 2013

BART was slammed by legislators and its workers on Nov. 7 for refusing to make a key worker safety improvement demanded by state regulators since a 2008 fatality, instead choosing to aggressively defend the “simple approval” process that contributed to two more fatalities on Oct. 19, after which the district finally made the change.

The Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment had already planned the San Francisco hearing into why BART spent years appealing rulings by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration before the recent tragedy, but that incident sharpened criticism of the district for valuing efficiency over safety.

“The culture of safety at BART must change,” said BART train operator Jesse Hunt, who gave dramatic testimony about the callous culture at BART that led to the Oct. 19 tragedy. “It’s not a single incident, it’s a pattern of disregard for safety.”

The hearing also delved into why BART had an uncertified trainee at the helm of the train that killed Christopher Sheppard and Laurence Daniels on Oct. 19, despite warnings by its unions that district preparations to run limited service during the strike would be unsafe (see “Tragedy follows strike,” Oct. 23).

“Simple approval” made employees doing work on the tracks responsible to avoid being hit by trains moving silently at up to 80mph. When BART exhausted its administrative appeals of Cal-OSHA’s rulings in June, it filed a lawsuit in Alameda County Superior Court and continued to defend the practice, which its unions had long sought to end.

“BART challenged that citation and continues to do so to this day,” Chair Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina) said in his opening remarks, noting that it took two recent fatalities for BART to drop its stance. “I’m deeply troubled this decision wasn’t made much earlier.”

For BART, the hearing only went downhill from there as state regulators testified to the district’s litigious refusal to adopt important safety precautions, employees painted a picture of a district hostile to them and their safety concerns, and legislators chastised BART managers for not having reasonable answers to their questions.

In response, BART Assistant General Manager of Operations Paul Oversier denied the district undervalues safety and said that it defended the simple approval process because it had been used tens of thousand of times and, “We had a track record in mind of a procedure that was working well.”

Asked whether he continues to defend it after the Oct. 19 incident, Oversier said, “Irrespective of what our opinion might be, we suspended the simple approval process,” a decision that he said could disrupt service, increase costs, and “that may cause us to look at what our hours of operation are.”

The hearing was called by Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-SF, who said in his opening remarks, “I was very concerned to read many of the OSHA findings, that it found BART was in violation of California state law,” which prohibits employers from making workers responsible for their own safety in dangerous situations.

Later, Ting questioned BART Chief Safety Officer Jeff Lau about how many of OSHA’s safety violations it had taken steps to correct versus how many it continues to resist, a question Lau said that he couldn’t answer. “I’m extraordinarily disappointed in your response,” Ting told Lau, demanding that he prepare a detailed written response to the questions and submit it to the committee, which plans to revisit the issue once more details emerge from the NTSA investigation of the Oct. 19 incident.