BART resists safety reforms in labor negotiations


BART maintenance workers training under safety instructor Saul Almanza are taught this most important lesson: the objective when you go to work is to come home afterward.

He remembers two BART engineers who were hit and killed by the trains they were charged with repairing: Robert Rhodes in 2001, and James Strickland in 2008. Almanza imagines the dark tunnels where the safe places to stand are small and the lighting is scarce. He says he thinks of Rhodes and Strickland every day.

As talks between BART labor unions and management resumed Sept. 9, negotiations over safety overhauls had stalled, according to representatives from SEIU Local 1021. On Sept. 11, union members on the negotiating team — which includes Almanza — released a chart of fines the transit agency received from the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, stemming from those accidents.

The chart shows 20 citations from OSHA since 2001 that the unions said have been unaddressed. BART management, unsurprisingly, disputes this. The list shows incidents as minor as rain getting into a fare gate and as major as the two aforementioned deaths. All told, the safety fines add up to $192,375.

The complaints were also listed on CAL/OSHA's website, with additional details revealing that some of the investigations into the complaints were closed, contrary to the union's claim. But that doesn't mean the underlying causes of the problems have been solved, and they remain a sticking point in the negotiations between BART management and SEIU.

BART spokesperson Rick Rice said the lighting issues that led to Rhodes' death will soon be resolved. Strickland's death was a separate issue, though, as dense vegetation blocked a driver's line of sight, leading to the mechanic's death. That was also addressed, Rice said.

"Starting next year there's $4.5 million allocated by the board to improve all the lighting," Rice told the Guardian, and that other changes have made the tunnels safer since the 2001 accident.

But Almanza said he won't believe it until he sees it in writing. So far, that hasn't happened.