Do you know whether any of your employees in safety-sensitive positions have poor vision?
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) says the probable cause of a two-train collision that killed three employees and caused $14.8 million in damage was the Union Pacific Railroad crew’s lack of response to signals because one engineer incorrectly interpreted the signals because of his poor vision.
The safety agency says a contributing factor was a medical exam that failed to decertify the engineer before his deteriorating vision adversely affected his ability to operate a train safely.
Five locomotives and 32 rail cars derailed in the collision near Goodwell, OK. The engineer and conductor of the eastbound train and the engineer of the westbound train were killed. The conductor of the westbound train jumped to safety. Several fuel tanks ruptured, releasing diesel fuel that ignited.
The NTSB learned the engineer of the eastbound train had a history of vision problems. At the time of the crash, he had impaired visual acuity and defective color vision.
“The engineer had a restricted driver’s license due to his poor vision,” said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman, “yet he had no similar restrictions on his ability to operate a mile long freight train.”
Among 20 specific findings of the NTSB’s report:
- The eastbound engineer’s vision had significantly deteriorated because of a chronic medical condition
- The engineer was unable to visually detect and correctly interpret whether the signals were red or green
- Union Pacific failed to adhere to its policy requiring documentation from an outside source to verify visual acuity and failed to perform followup testing recommended by its own chief medical officer
- Union Pacific relies on a color vision field test of unknown validity and reliability for certification of employees in safety-sensitive jobs
- The test used by Union Pacific fails to ensure its employees have adequate color perception to perform safety-sensitive jobs, and
- Identifying chronic conditions with the potential to deteriorate dangerously, such as glaucoma, and increased frequency of medical evaluation for those conditions would very likely have identified the further decline in the engineer’s vision and would have decertified him before the collision.
The NTSB issued a total of 16 recommendations to the Federal Railroad Administration, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, the United Transportation Union, Union Pacific and to railroads in general.
Among the recommendations to Union Pacific: implement a safety management system that incorporates crew resource management and replace its color vision field test to one that ensures certified employees in safety-sensitive positions can sufficiently distinguished among colors to work safely.
Twice as likely to have poor vision
A 2011 report from the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) says a rapidly increasing proportion of the aging population experiences eye problems that make simple daily tasks difficult or impossible.
Statistics on the percentage of Americans with vision loss by age shows how the risk increases with time (the first numbers are age range, followed by the percentage with vision loss):
- 18-44: 5.5%
- 45-64: 12.0%
- 65-74: 12.2%, and
- 75+: 15.2%.
People 45-64 years old are more than twice as likely to report vision loss as people between 18-44.