MBTA emphasizes third rail safety after injuries send employee to the hospital

MBTA workers have been instructed to place protective covers on top of electrified third rails or turn the power to the rail off during nearby maintenance after an "arc flash" hospitalized one employee last week, officials said.

The new protocol, which is still being reviewed by safety overseers at the Department of Public Utilities, stems from an Aug. 2 incident that was disclosed publicly during an MBTA subcommittee meeting Thursday.

On that day, two signal maintainers were dispatched to deal with what MBTA Deputy Director of Safety Investigations Asia Williams described as a "dropped track circuit" at the Quincy Center station crossover on the Red Line.

The crew was splicing wires around 5:10 p.m. when a wire came into contact with the electrified third rail and produced an "arc flash in the vicinity of both workers," Williams told the MBTA board's safety subcommittee.

"Upon arrival of EMS, one wireperson's fingers were treated with a report of no injuries, while the second wireperson was transported from the scene for electrical burn marks on their hands as well as arc flash injuries to the eyes," Williams said.

An MBTA spokesperson said the employee was released from the hospital later that night. Williams told the subcommittee the worker is in "stable condition," adding that MBTA officials are "still reaching out to the family to obtain updates."

A day after the incident, DPU Rail Transit Safety Director Robert Hanson wrote to MBTA officials ordering the agency to craft a corrective action plan within 24 hours that "identifies the hazard associated" and "provides corrective actions to ensure the safety of MBTA employees in all departments that conduct work along the right of way."

Hanson described both employees in the Aug. 2 incident as injured, one of whom was treated on scene and released and the other of whom was taken to Mass. General Hospital "with a hand injury."

The MBTA was previously working with the DPU on a corrective plan to protect "maintenance of way" employees from electrical hazards on the tracks, but Hanson said the T needed to take additional steps to ensure other types of workers — like those from the signal department affected last week — remain safe.

On Aug. 4, the day following Hanson's letter, MBTA Chief Safety Officer Ronald Ester issued a safety directive notifying the engineering and maintenance department that all work is prohibited near "unprotected energized 3rd rail." If work needs to take place on or near a third rail, crews must shut down the power system or install protective covers on top of the third rail.

An administration official said DPU is still reviewing the MBTA's corrective action plan and will need to either accept it or reject it and require an amended version.

"While the investigation is ongoing, we took immediate measures following the incident. The safety and well-being of our employees and riders will always be our top priority," MBTA General Manager Phil Eng said in a statement.

The engineering and maintenance department was required to inform all of its employees about the new procedures and distribute an updated "safety flash" bulletin.

"That seems surprising as a layperson because the third rail is a pretty well-known dangerous situation," MBTA Board Chair Thomas Glynn said during the subcommittee meeting. "What has given rise to the need to put this out?"

"This was some splicing of wires. This was not actually work on the third rail, but during the splicing of wires, the wires made contact with the third rail and caused the arc flash," Ester replied. "The directive is saying any time you're performing work — even if it's not on the third rail — in close proximity, we want you to put these third rail covers on the third rail to protect you from any mishaps that may occur."

The DPU, which serves as the official state-level office responsible for transit safety oversight, has bulked up its work to oversee the MBTA in recent months.

Federal investigators last year criticized the DPU during a sweeping probe of safety failures at the T, concluding that the department was falling short of its watchdog responsibilities. Some lawmakers in response have proposed removing transit safety from the DPU's plate and assigning that job to a new, independent office.



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