Metro workers are not getting enough sleep even as millions of riders depend on them. Some bus drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel. Concerns over safety escalated earlier this year, with reports some employees were working excessively long hours with double shifts or more. But now a new study by the transit agency shows the real problem may be the "shift" they work.
The analysis of more than 3,000 bus and rail operators found the biggest factor in fatigue are the critical hours between midnight and 8 a.m.
"A lot of night work, which deprives you of opportunities to get good nighttime sleep, is going to be the major driver of fatigue," said Steven Hursch with the Institutes for Behavior Resources, which did the study.
Earlier this year, Metro reported drive cams triggered by sudden braking on Metrobuses showed 67 drivers in a 19-month period fell asleep at the wheel.
"When we see that they're taken off duty, we check to make sure they have no medical problems, sleep apnea," said Metro General Manager and CEO Richard Sarles. "We also look at the hours they worked to see if that had an influence."
Metro has trimmed the amount of excessive overtime through hiring more workers, but it can't restrict the hours all employees work because of the way overtime is awarded by seniority. Instead, it's recommended that drivers who start work between 3 a.m. and 5 a.m. should go to bed earlier.
"Even having people turn in earlier as a mitigation measure does not mean that they won't wind up potentially working a double or triple shift," warned Tom Downs, vice chair of Metro's Board.
Overall, the number of workers affected by fatigue appears small, but the problem remains big. A study of railroad workers found when the effectiveness of tired workers fell below 70 percent, the risk of accidents went up.
"The problem is you can't necessarily eliminate that shift," said Hursch. "If these people are building trains for the morning rush hour ... We've got to figure out how they can do that job and still be well rested and alert."
Some workers load up on coffee to stay awake but do that all the time, and experts say it loses its effect.
In the coming months, Metro plans to have some workers log their work and sleep habits. A small number of them will wear a monitor, much like a wristwatch, that will record their activity 24/7. This should help them determine whether workers truly are getting enough sleep.