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Survey finds many MTA employees have safety concerns

Most agency workers give the agency high marks for safety, but a large majority of mechanics, track workers and others describe their workplace as somewhat safe, not very safe or not safe at all.

November 23, 2012|By Dan Weikel, Los Angeles Times
  • A Metro Blue Line train zips past a pedestrian near the intersection of Washington Boulevard and Flower Street. A recent workplace survey found that a large majority of mechanics, track workers, bus drivers, train operators and others described their workplace as somewhat safe, not very safe or not safe at all.
A Metro Blue Line train zips past a pedestrian near the intersection of Washington… (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles…)

Hundreds of Metro transit workers — many of whom operate the trains and buses that carry 1.5 million riders daily — say they have concerns about their on-the-job safety.

Of 745 employees who responded to a workplace survey at the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a large majority of mechanics, track workers, bus drivers, train operators and others described their workplace as somewhat safe, not very safe or not safe at all.

A significant number of employees, particularly those who operate and repair transit systems, also believe their supervisors are concerned about safety only when there is a serious accident.

Most of the Metro workers who were questioned, however, gave the agency high marks for safety overall. Yet almost half said they have encountered close calls on the job that could have killed or seriously injured someone.

Metro Chief Executive Art Leahy said he was pleased that the survey was "generally positive" and pointed out that many of its recommendations already have been addressed. He noted, for example, that the management of the department that maintains rail systems has been changed, more workers have been hired and trackside safety measures improved.

But Leahy said the study by Sam Schwartz Engineering, a national consulting firm, was not as comprehensive as he would have liked. And he questioned whether the employees who responded to the detailed questionnaire were really representative.

"I take deep offense to anyone who says I don't care about safety," Leahy said. "This is no joke."

Metro operates about 2,000 buses and 87 miles of subway and light-rail lines. It has about 9,000 employees and a $4.5-billion annual budget.

The report, obtained by The Times under the state Public Records Act, is scheduled to be discussed at the authority's December board meeting. It comes at a time when agency leaders have been debating several safety issues.

During the last year, the authority has been dealing with a faulty rail junction on the recently opened Expo light-rail line to the Westside and a surge in accidents on the Blue Line, the light-rail link between Los Angeles and Long Beach.

In the survey, solid majorities of Metro employees said that accidents were thoroughly investigated, education and training programs were effective, management addressed safety-related complaints and changes in safety rules were adequately communicated.

"There is clearly a positive safety culture at Metro," researchers said, adding that such a distinction is enjoyed by only "a handful of transit agencies."

Metro's board of directors ordered the safety study in October 2011, at the request of Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, the current board chairman. The consultants reviewed written safety procedures, interviewed key managers and held group discussions with workers. Questionnaires were sent to 6,000 of Metro's 9,000 employees, of whom 745 responded.

Though the survey was not a scientifically based opinion poll, about 8% of the authority's workforce participated, considered to be a significant sample.

Howard Roberts, the author of the report, said the survey was designed to identify strengths as well as suspected problems that Metro should look into and correct if necessary.

The authority is "working on all the report's recommendations," said Roberts, a veteran transit executive who is now a consultant. "Metro ought to be commended for the survey. Not a lot of people do this. Some agencies don't want to recognize that they might have serious problems."

Roberts cautioned that some of the survey's findings were not always a reflection of the quality of Metro's safety policies. Track workers, train operators and bus drivers, he said, can feel vulnerable in the field and face inherent dangers that are difficult to eliminate, such as crime and accidents caused by the public.

The report found that significant numbers of bus drivers, train operators and those who work on Metro's rail network were more critical of their safety and agency practices than workers who are less connected to the direct operation and maintenance of rail and bus systems.

They said that many close calls or near-misses are never reported to supervisors and that Metro is more interested in disciplining individuals for mishaps or safety violations instead of preventing recurrences.

Many other employees who work on tracks and related equipment said they were seriously concerned about pressure from supervisors to ignore some safety rules and procedures to get assignments done.

Majorities of all workers, however, said that Metro's management takes a "no blame" approach if near-misses are reported and that supervisors maintain an open-door policy and act quickly to correct safety problems.

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