Mike Koozmin/The S.F. ExaminerBART officials are currently negotiating a new contract with station agents and train operators.

Workers stress safety in BART talks

Marilyn Fong, a petite 65-year-old, has long performed the yeoman’s task of monitoring BART’s underground depots as a station agent.

However, for the past year and a half, Fong has been on workers’ compensation — the result of a brutal attack she suffered at the hands of several teenagers. Fong was left with two cracked vertebrae, neural damage — including losing the ability to taste — and had at least a dozen teeth replaced.

The dangers facing Fong and other front-line employees at BART have been the focus of current contract negotiations, with union groups claiming recent cutbacks are resulting in more workplace injuries.

As a result of a hiring freeze, operations positions have dropped by 8 percent since 2009 while employee injuries have risen 43 percent, according to information provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1555, which represents station agents and train operators.

Assaults on station agents nearly quadrupled between 2009 and 2012, from nine to 31, according to BART. Those assaults include an incident where a worker was punched twice in the face by a fare evader.

Fong said that when she first started at BART, there were two station agents at each booth. Now there is often only one person.

“When I was attacked, there was no one else there to help defend me,” said the 17-year BART veteran. “If it wasn’t for the janitor coming over after hearing my screams, I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

As part of contract talks, BART management has focused on the high rates of unscheduled absences, particularly among front-line workers. Employees rack up an average of 40 unscheduled absences a year, but Fong said that number would drop if the employees felt safer.

“We have to patrol an area the size of an entire football field alone, while receiving daily verbal abuse from passengers,” said Fong.

Paul Oversier, operations manager at BART, said the employee reduction has only bee”n 6 percent and mostly at “backline positions in areas such as maintenance.

“I would be really wary of any causal link between worker numbers and safety issues,” said Oversier. “Even if we were reducing front-line numbers, which we’re not, I think the violence increase is mostly due to problems we’ve seen throughout the system, like a rise in panhandling, a lack of civility at stations and more quality-of-life issues.”

Beyond the threats of assault, BART has been unresponsive to persistent problems with workplace conditions, said Jesse Hunt, a train operator and union leader. Hunt tore his labrum trying to open a jammed window, leaving him out on workers’ comp for nearly two years.

“They do nothing about addressing preventable, fixable problems,” he said.

While on leave, employees cannot collect retirement credit and only earn two-thirds of their paychecks.

BART unions want to be able to collectively bargain their workers’ comp claims and have management address ergonomic and safety issues, including hiring more station agents, said Hunt.

Oversier said the agency set up an ergonomics committee and state law changes have made the process for workers’ comp claims more rigorous. The agency also has extensively reviewed and redesigned its train car windows to improve use.

Oversier said he’s not sure it’s even possible to automate the windows.

“That would be like retrofitting a 1964 Mustang with automatic windows,” Oversier said in reference to the decades-old trains.

The contract between BART and its five union groups is set to expire June 30.

wreisman@sfexaminer.com

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