Twelve years after BART train kills mechanic, lighting and electrical safety not improved

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Welcome to the black
Photo courtesy of SEIU local 1021
The 24th street BART tunnel where mechanic Robert Rhodes was killed in 2001 has inadequate lighting to see safety clearance zones, the SEIU said, a problem that has persisted for over a decade.

When BART maintenance workers train under safety instructor Saul Almanza, the most important thing they learn is this: your objective when you go to work is to come home. 

When he recites that mantra he remembers two BART engineers who were hit and killed by the trains whose tracks they were charged with repairing: Robert Rhodes in 2001, and James Strickland in 2008. Almanza imagines the dark tunnels, where the safe places to stand are small and the lighting is scarce. He thinks of Rhodes and Strickland every day.

As talks between BART labor unions and management resumed Sept. 9, negotiations over safety overhauls have stalled, representatives from SEIU Local 1021 said. On Sept. 11, union members on the negotiating team -- which includes Almanza -- released a chart of fines the transit agency had received from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, stemming from those accidents. 

The chart shows 20 citations from OSHA since 2001 that the unions said have been unaddressed. BART management, unsurprisingly, disputes this. The list shows incidents as minor as rain getting into a fare gate and as major as the two aforementioned deaths. All told, the safety fines add up to $192,375. 

spreadsheet documenting BART's safety violations

The complaints were also listed on the federal OSHA website, with additional details revealing that some of the investigations into the complaints were closed, contrary to the union’s claim. That doesn’t mean the underlying causes of the problems have been solved, though. Many of the problems persist, Almanza told us, endangering workers’ lives.

Those safety issues remain a sticking point in the negotiations between BART management and SEIU. 

BART spokesperson Rick Rice said the lighting issues that led to Rhodes’ death will soon be resolved. Strickland’s death was a separate issue, though, as dense vegetation blocked a driver’s line of sight led to the mechanic’s death. That was also addressed, Rice said. 

“Starting next year there's $4.5 million allocated by the board to improve all the lighting,” Rice told the Guardian, he said other changes have also made the tunnels safer since the 2001 accident.

But Almanza said that while he’s heard that all before, he won’t believe it until he sees it in writing. So far, that hasn’t happened. 

“The only change that took place was they added signage to the location saying you can’t enter the area without ‘simple’ approval,” Almanza said. Simple approval is a process where the worker recites a waiver that absolves BART of fault should they be injured or die.  “They make you proclaim that you won’t interfere with operations, and it means if you delay something or die it’s your fault.”

Rhodes’ death in 2001 was a result of inadequate markings and lighting, he said, but Strickland’s death in 2008 was due to his being hidden behind tree ovegrowth. The union is asking for a dedicated grounds crew to cut back vegetation to improve visibility, hopefully saving lives in the process. BART management said progress was made on that point.

“Since the accident they're referencing, there's been extensive changes to the safety procedures and vegetation management,” Rice said. But Almanza told us those changes embedded groundskeepers with mechanics, and they started doing jobs that had nothing to do with groundskeeping. They weren’t even handed chainsaws for a year, he said. 

A train mechanic at the Hayward BART shop, Robert Bright, also told us he was worried about safety conditions for BART workers. In our previous coverage, “Tales from the Tracks,” he said he’s seen workers crushed under machinery and electrocuted due to lax safety conditions.

Almanza said BART’s resistance to making electric work safer is a prime example of their attitude toward safety. OSHA issued multiple citations requiring BART to change safety procedures for when mechanics work on or near the rails. 

“The third rail is electrified with a rubber blanket over it for protection,” Almanza explained. BART also uses a method of cutting power to the rail while a worker places a plastic board down to protect them from it. But the power could easily be turned back on, meaning electrocution or death for the workers. 

Electric third rail cover

This is the cover BART workers use when working on the third rail.

OSHA’s changes are simple enough, requiring trained electricians to shut off power to the third rails and remove power breakers before maintenance crews work on the tracks to prevent the power from accidentally being switched back on. Almanza said the procedure saves lives. 

But BART management has even paid its lawyers to resist the changes recommended by OSHA, documentation shows. 

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Recent minutes from BART’s board of directors shows the board voted unanimously to retain legal services from law firm Glynn and Finley to “mount a vigorous defense” against the safety citations issued by OSHA, saying the recommended changes were unnecessary and would have little effect on safety. Meeting minutes show the directors don’t think it’s a necessary procedure, but Almanza contends that it’s a cost-saving measure, since electricians must be paid to remove the breakers.

“If this prohibition is implemented, it would drastically change the way BART performs maintenance operations with no anticipated improvement in safety,” according to meeting minutes. It went on to state that the procedure introduces additional safety risks, which Almanza denies. 

The board then moved to approve a $188,000 increase for legal services to challenge the OSHA changes -- almost as much as the agency paid in fines for safety violations in the first place.

BART spokesperson Jim Allison said that by next week BART will look at the union's proposals around safety and will respond to their concerns.

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