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Benefits edge cost for rail safety program

By Sean Ryan

The federal government figured one life is worth $5.8 million when deciding if it is worth the cost to make railroad construction workers safer.

A person who will die if new safety rules are not mandated is referred to as a “statistical life” by government analysts who compare costs and benefits of new programs. The value of each of those lives ranges from $1 million to $10 million.

The Federal Railroad Administration picked $5.8 million for each life when analyzing new safety rules to prevent construction workers from being hit by trains on tracks adjacent to rails being built or repaired. The new rules, which the Federal Railroad Administration released for public comments Wednesday, are in response to the seven U.S. workers who have been killed under those circumstances since 1997.

“We’ve been very diligent,” said John Zuspan, president of railroad construction safety consultant Track Guy Consultants, Canonsburg, Pa. “It’s actually kind of surprising these things happen, and I know some of the details of some of these things and there’s companies that don’t pay enough attention to this stuff, which is a shame.”

Stanley Beaver, director of health, safety and quality for Balfour Beatty Rail Inc., a railroad builder which works nationwide, said analysis that assign a value to the life of a worker have always been around. As repulsive as the concept is, he said, it serves a practical purpose for government agencies determining if new safety programs really will help workers.

“It’s a horrible way to look at things,” Beaver said. “I really, really hate it. But, I guess, it’s a necessary thing.”

Beaver said he uses a different equation at Balfour Beatty to determine if a project or practice is safe enough.

“If we can’t do it safely and still meet our guidelines as far as our margin is concerned,” he said, “we’re not going to do it. It’s that simple.”

The costs and benefits of the new Federal Railroad Administration safety rules were close, in terms of money, but the agency decided the program is worthwhile.

The cost of new programs, including additional training and on-site safety programs, is $130.66 million nationwide during the next 20 years. The benefits stack up to $131.93 million.

The analyses are required by a 1993 presidential executive order.

Zuspan said he is not familiar with the railroad administration’s analysis, but he said it is difficult to measure the benefit of prevention.

“How do you quantify that?” he said, “That’s always the thing is how do you qualify or quantify something in any form of training, because you never know what might have happened.”

Beaver, who so far in 2009 has met his goal of no worker fatalities or debilitating injuries, said he wants to see the proposed Federal Railroad Administration rules for adjacent tracks put into place.

“We’re not in the business of hurting people,” he said. “We are in the construction industry.”

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