By Isabel Angell
Members of a state Assembly committee say they want to know what BART’s doing to improve safety in the wake of an incident last month in which two workers were struck by a train and killed as they worked on tracks in Walnut Creek.
The state Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment called Thursday’s meeting to investigate the accident. The lawmakers focused on BART’s “simple approval” process, under which workers are responsible for their own safety on the tracks. The practice has been tied to four worker deaths since 2001.
In 2009, after an investigation into the death of a worker, Cal/OSHA, the state’s workplace safety division, told BART that simple approval violated state law. But BART appealed and didn’t abolish simple approval until last month, after employee Christopher Sheppard and contractor Laurence Daniels were killed on Oct. 19 while inspecting a section of track. The incident occurred during a four-day strike against the agency, and the train was being run by a management employee who was being taught how to operate it.
“That’s a gut-wrenching question, when you ask, ‘You did it now, why didn’t you do it then,” BART Assistant General Manager Paul Oversier told lawmakers.
Train operator Jesse Hunt told the panel that BART used simple approval to keep trains on time, since it didn’t require trains to be slowed down or stopped. He said the practice shows the agency’s disregard for safety.
“Workplace safety on the BART system is unfortunately hampered by a real top-down drive for on-time performance over employee and rider safety,” he said.
BART Chief Safety Officer Jeff Lau told lawmakers that safety is a priority for the district, and said he regretted workers felt otherwise.
Oversier said that simple approval reflects practices common in the rail industry, and that over the past five years, there were about 40,000 simple approvals issued without incident. He said that by losing simple approval, BART might be forced to reduce its operating hours to keep up with its maintenance needs.
But he said abolishing the practice is not an overreaction.
“We have to stop this so that there isn’t the opportunity to learn any more lessons on how to fix this process after a fatality,” he said.
Cal/OSHA and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the deaths of Sheppard and Daniels.