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Railcar Safety

Date Posted: September 29, 2000

Awareness while working around railcars should be an automatic response.

Unfortunately, common sense can get pushed by the wayside in the rush to get cars loaded and unloaded, especially during the frenetic pace of rail-loading.

Kevin Danner, director of corporate safety, West Central Cooperative, Ralston, IA, discussed handling railcars safely at a safety, health, and environmental compliance seminar held in Overland Park, KS, in July.

Gary Ganson, director of corporate health and safety, Farmland Industries, Inc., Kansas City, MO, gave a presentation on implementing a fall protection plan for working on railcars.

The meeting was jointly sponsored by the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA/www. and the Grain Elevator and Processing Society (GEAPS/

“There are so many tasks associated with rail handling and most of us share like concerns for all the vast multitude of tasks which must be safely completed every time railcars are present on our site,” Ganson commented.

Universal precautions

According to Danner, the best safety lesson is to be aware and to use common sense at all times and to observe the following universal precautions:

• Expect sudden movement of trains, at any time, on any track, and from either direction, without warning.

• Never stand, sit, or walk on or between rails.

• Stay at least an arm’s length away from any track.

• After looking both ways, step over the tracks, on a straight path, and never cross in front of moving equipment.

• Follow your company policy when it comes to crossing through and between equipment. Don’t go between or under moving equipment.

• Communicate your intentions, via radio or hand signals, to cross the tracks.

• Never place feet on couplers, levers or any part of the drawbar.

• Cross between breaks in stationary cars only when the distance is at least two car lengths.

• Maintain three-point contact between your body and the railcar on ladders and foot rails.

• A blue flag or blue light indicates that employees are working in or around a car or string of cars.

Moving Equipment

It may seem faster or more convenient to hitch a ride on a moving car, rather than walking to your destination, but the law and common sense forbid it.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA/ states that no one may ride on moving equipment, unless specific duties require them to do so, and company policy allows for it.

If you must ride a moving car, do so from the side of the lead car, toward the front, and face the direction of travel, Danner said.

When getting on or off railcars, be alert to conditions and your current situation. For example, if it is sleeting, the cars and ladders are likely to be slippery.

Never get on or off if the car is traveling at more than 2 miles per hour, avoid stepping from car to car and use the ladders and other equipment that are provided for your safety.

Getting Squashed

The fastest way to get injured while working around railcars is to stand between two cars that are being coupled or uncoupled.

Danner cited these safety standards for coupling or uncoupling cars and air hoses and when working around switches:

• Never go in front of or between any moving equipment to couple or perform any other function.

• Don’t use your feet to adjust couplers.

• Never place any part of your body between the cars.

• Use the equipment provided, in the manner it was intended.

• Be alert to sudden movement and keep your feet outside the rails.

• When working with air hoses, make sure the cars are completely stopped, and notify the power source supervisor before doing any work.

• Switches must be maintained in good working order. Notify the proper personnel immediately if there is a problem.

• Keep hands and feet clear of switches.

• Use good lifting techniques.

Essential Communication

Communication is essential between all crew members when loading and unloading cars, more so than at any other time when working around railcars, Danner stated.

He highly recommends using two-way radios for contact, but hand signals are also effective. Sound a warning prior to each car movement, and if you are not positive that everyone is safe and accounted for, do not move the car.

These rules apply regardless of what type of rail power is being used to move the cars. Each has its own unique safety considerations and again, an audible warning signal must be used.

Follow your company policy if you’re using remote control devices for switch engines.

More Hazards

Beyond the myriad of safety hazards surrounding the cars themselves, Danner said workers must be aware of other potential hazards, such as:

• Power lines. Always be on the lookout for low lines as working on top of cars may place you dangerously close to high voltage wires.

• Night loading. Provide additional loading and exercise extra caution.

• Inclement weather. Strong winds, rain, snow, ice, extreme heat or cold can create additional hazards. Danner said loading operations can be delayed if necessary under these conditions.

• Fatigue. A tired mind and body can lead to accidents. Be aware of this and plan accordingly.

• Pay attention to low clearance areas.

Fall Protection Plan

OSHA’s fall protection standard (Subpart M of 29 CFR 1926) was initially applied to the construction industry, even though those working in the elevator business also needed it, Farmland’s Ganson said.

Every business needs to develop a total systems approach to fall protection – and all parts must be in place and working together.

This includes identifying hazards and developing a written plan of action and training employees on the proper way to use their personal fall arrest system (PFAS).

Ganson said a PFAS must include body wear, such as a harness, connecting devices, and an anchor point. It must also be approved by an engineer prior to use.

On Guard

The grain handling, processing, and milling industries have a good safety track record when working with railcars, “but we can’t let our guard down,” Danner stated.

“Learn from each other, and share among yourselves ideas that increase safety. GEAPS, NGFA, railroads, and government agencies all have good information on this subject,” he said.

Written by Coreen Stevick, associate editor

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