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jca's avatar

What do you think someone's responsibility should be if they fall asleep on the job with a disastrous result (for example killing people)?

Asked by jca (26790 points ) December 9th, 2013

The other day my family was discussing the recent Thanksgiving weekend Metro North train accident where the train engineer (driver) fell asleep and the train rounded a turn going over 80 mph and derailed, killing 4 people and injuring many more. In addition, the track got screwed up which affected the commutes of tens of thousands of people who use that rail line to go to and from New York City each day.

The train engineer apparently fell asleep. Drug and alcohol tests were negative.

My family members were discussing the engineer being defended by his union and/or attorney and the implications of falling asleep on the job. Would it be acceptable for a surgeon to fall asleep on the job and do something terrible to a patient on the operating table? Would it be ok for a pilot to fall asleep and crash a plane?

These are not my thoughts, these are hypothetical situations that came up in the discussion.

I don’t want the question to be about this incident specifically, so I left those details out of the question. I want it to be more for general opinions – what should someone’s responsibility be for falling asleep on the job?

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15 Answers

DWW25921's avatar

I think he should have criminal charges brought up. Maybe I’m harsh but that’s where I’m at.

CWOTUS's avatar

1. Negative evaluation on the annual employee review.
2. No merit increase in next year’s pay.
3. Failed to meet requirements for this year’s “all employee” bonus and/or profit sharing.
4. Spend a day in the time-out corner at straight time only; no overtime.

Obviously, it’s not funny to have such a costly accident with such tragic results. Obviously, too, that person is unsuited to that employment. But given the power of the union involved and the political nature of the transit utility, it’s also doubtful that he will be fired, demoted or even significantly reprimanded.

What else should happen? Aside from the driver himself, the rail system should be re-engineered and rebuilt to enable safe travel at higher speeds; governors should be placed in the engines to positively limit speeds at certain locations where higher speeds are simply not possible or practical, and we should continue to automate the train-driving process altogether.

After all, if Google can build a car that can drive safely over hundreds of thousands of road miles, then it should be duck soup to make a self-driving train on rails, and where it is the only vehicle there. I doubt it will happen in our lifetimes, though.

Judi's avatar

A surgeon is basically self employed and sets his own hours and decides if he is fit.
In the case of an employee I would consider mitigating circumstances like unreasonable hours and demands from an employer.

ucme's avatar

Just on the pilot point, I forget where I saw this, might have been on the news, but apparently pilots fall asleep all the time. Often times both pilots have woken to find they were sleeping at the same time while the plane was on auto. Overworked & stressed out being a couple of reasons given.

ragingloli's avatar

1. Question: Was he being deliberately overworked by his employer, or did he just go to bed too late?
2. Commercial pilots do not fly the plane alone. They have co-pilots. This should be standard practice for mass transportation.

KNOWITALL's avatar

There are jobs that an employee can’t leave or they’ll get fired, even if it puts themselves or others in jeopardy. In those cases, the employer should accept full responsiblity.

poisonedantidote's avatar

I don’t know the details of this case, but speaking generally, I would have 2 ways of dealing with people who fall asleep on the job, and it depends why they fell asleep.

If someone falls asleep on the job, because their body put them to sleep, then I think they have no blame on them, they did not go to sleep, their operating system just gave them the blue screen and there was nothing they could do, no guilt.

On the other hand, if it is Homer Simpson style, someone who falls asleep at work, because they intended to take a nap, then have charges against them of some kind, fitting to the consequences of their sleeping.

If some doctor is forced to work 30 hour shifts, and on the 29th hour he falls asleep at the operating table landing face first in to his patients guts, killing the patient, I want to know why the hell the hospital still had him working at the 29th consecutive hour. Likewise for truck drivers or anyone else who can’t help but shut down and sleep.

But, if it some lazy warehouse worker who sleeps every day, and this day fell asleep allowing a load of toxic waste to get dumped in to a river or something, then he is accountable and to blame.

wildpotato's avatar

An investigation to determine fault (like, was it entirely his bad or was it in part due to his recent schedule change), then charges of criminal negligence and manslaughter.

But the real villains in your example story are, in my opinion, the legislators who take legal bribes to keep the system unsafe by delaying the rollout of PTC for nothing but the benefit of the bribers: the rail industry. I expect nothing better from the industry; they’re just out to protect their bottom line, even at the expense of life. But legislators are supposed to protect us, dammit. This one gets me really angry, sorry for the mini-rant.

JLeslie's avatar

Seems to me trains should have two people driving the train like what is mandatory for commercial planes. I don’t know much about Amtrack, but it surprises me there is not a warning system that is automatically triggered for speeds nearing a turn. I know trains are very old technology. I heard they will now have cameras on the engineers on thebtrains. I think of the train as being such a safe form of transportation, this sort of accident is so disconcerting.

I assume there are laws protecting train engineers regarding how many hours they can work in a row similar to pilots. Although, I heard recently some pilots were speaking out about being exhausted.

In terms of responsibility, do you mean should it be punishable with jail time? Sleepy driving is just as dangerous as drunk driving. If we punish people with jail every time someone has an accident from being overtired that is probably a lot of “innocent” people being punished and we have to think there but for the grace of God go I. But, in the case of planes and trains, it is the engineers job to be ready and able for their responsibilties, including the lives of the passengers on board. My assumption is the engineer (if he survived, I don’t know if he lived or not) was a hard working man, who will never sleep well again because other people got hurt due to his mistake. Even if his company was demending too many hours and he can blame them for some of it, not matter what he will be tortured by knowing he was driving.

CWOTUS's avatar

Per the suggestion from @ragingloli, imagine school buses with co-drivers. Oh, goody, I can hardly wait.

ragingloli's avatar

That would be great. One of them to drive, the other to keep the hellspawn in line.
If he is armed, even better.

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

I think this issue needs to be clarified.

If the driver started a shift knowing they were unfit to do their job properly, then there is no legitimate escape from any and all consequences stemming from their negligence.

If the driver was unaware of some medical condition such as narcolepsy that was so far not diagnosed , then they should not be considered negligent. Of course, there would be no excuse for them to continue to work until the problem is resolved. They should immediately inform their union and their employer.

Negligence requires doing something with the knowledge that their action potentially puts others at risk.

Trains used to always be equipped with what came to be know as a “dead man” switch. To my knowledge, modern locomotives will come to a stop unless the driver continues to do certain actions impossible for a dead or sleeping driver to do.

I do not know how that terrible recent crash could have occurred if the safety equipment was fully functional.

ItalianPrincess1217's avatar

As W. Edwards Deming suggested, don’t blame the person, fix the system. Maybe the train operator worked a double shift. Maybe similar to planes, there should be a co-operator to avoid things like this. Maybe more safety features need to be put in place to avoid trains traveling at high speeds around corners. Humans are only so reliable. We are going to make mistakes. Unfortunately some mistakes are costly. Why put all the pressure on one single person? Doesn’t seen very smart to me.

As tragic as it is when something like the train incident happens, what can really be done to the operator? Fire them? Maybe. No raises for awhile? I guess. But imagine the punishment that person is already going through. He has the burden of knowing his mistake took people’s lives. I think that’s punishment enough.

jca's avatar

@CWOTUS: The train engineer who fell asleep and caused the derailment is currently on unpaid suspension.

The paper said he recently had a shift change. Not sure what the old shift was or the new shift was. They said he did not go out the night before. They also said he started as a custodian and within four years, worked his way up to train engineer. He made over $140,000 and he had an unblemished record.

There’s some kind of safety device which will be installed on the dangerous curves on that track. In the meantime, the NTSB ordered that all trains have two engineers instead of just one, for at least the time being.

JLeslie's avatar

@jca That all sounds reasonable to me. That shift change is what I talk about when stores make people work Black Friday at midnight when they never work through the night usually. I think they become a hazard to themselves and others on the road, especially when driving home at 9am after no sleep. We don’t know the engineers shift change as you said. I wonder if the engineer had asked for the change or if the company forced it on him.

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