Train loading and rail yard safety

by Melissa Alexander
Share This:


By Gary Imhoff, Farmers Cooperative Company, Farnhamville, IA, USA
Presented at the 2002 GEAPS Exchange


There is no room for the inexperienced or untrained employee when it comes to loading/unloading rail cars or working in a rail yard!

Awareness of weather conditions, yard conditions, equipment capabilities, equipment wear, and of course safety procedures including good communications between workers, are key elements in preventing injuries and even deaths. It is important for all workers involved in train loading/unloading and moving cars in the rail yard be aware of the hazards of rail yard and rail car work.

Effective Communication Between Workers
Effective communications are of utmost importance when working with others around rail cars. Rail cars are large and easily block your view of other workers or trackmobile/switch engine operator. Communications can be of hand signals, voice and/or radio communication. Hand signals can be easily used as long as workers are in sight of each other. Due to the size of rail cars, this type of communications is somewhat limited.

Excessive noise in the work area can cause voice and even radio communications to become misunderstood. Always make sure the person(s) you are working with understands your communications.

General Requirements
Before going between or working on the end of cars, make sure that the engine operator has a clear understanding of the work you are going to perform. When a crew member is required to go between or work on the end of equipment, he/she must notify the engineer and all other crew members who could affect movement of the equipment by radio or hand signal. The engineer and all other crew members who could affect the movement of the equipment must verify by radio that they understand a crew member will be going in between or working on the end of equipment.

When the power unit is coupled to the equipment that is not to be moved, the operator must put power unit in neutral and set the brakes before acknowledgement is made. The operator must ensure the equipment being secured will not move until the crew member requesting protection has reported by radio that he/she is no longer between or on the end of the equipment. The crew member going between or working on the end of equipment must wait until all movement of equipment has stopped and the slack has adjusted.

When stepping out from between cars or power units, employees must watch for equipment moving on adjacent tracks or vehicles moving on the roadways between the tracks.

Communicating via signals whether by hand, voice, or radio contact
Do not give the signal to move power units, cars or other equipment until all affected persons and equipment are clear of the movement. Regard any break in radio communications as a stop signal. Keep radios in good working order and charged up ready for use. If radio communications fail, make sure the operator understands and can see your hand signals.

Do not cross within 25 feet (7.5 meters) of the end of standing equipment, unless you or a member of the crew is controlling the standing equipment. Do not cross in front of approaching equipment, unless you are sufficiently ahead of the equipment to cross safely. Step over, not on rails, frogs, or switches.

Watch for conditions that could interfere with safe footing. Do not walk between tracks except when duties require and proper protection is provided.

Sitting or Standing
Do not sit on rails or track structures unless duties require. Do not stand, sit, or walk on top or on the sides of any open top car unless safe catwalks are provided.

Do not set on the steps of a moving power unit. Do not sit or lie underneath or lean against standing equipment unless duties require, and only when proper safeguards are provided to assure that sudden movement of equipment will not occur. Do not sit or stand on power unit handrails.

Riding In or On Moving Equipment

If you are working in an area with a limited side clearance and cannot clearly observe the track condition because of debris, snow, ice, water, grain, or mud, do not ride on the side of a car or power unit. When you have determined that it is safe and necessary to ride on cars or equipment, notify the operator.

Proceed only after the operator has acknowledged that you are going to ride. Do not get off of moving equipment, wait for the operator to stop before dismounting. Make sure of footing at dismount, especially during inclement weather.

Do not ride on the crossover platform or end ladder on any car. Do not ride on the brake platform, except to release or apply the hand brake during a gravity switch move.

When riding equipment, always maintain a three-point contact with the equipment and only on a side ladder at the far end of the string. Do not ride on any part of the coupler apparatus, center sill, side sill, end sill, or framework. Do not ride inside of any car. Do not ride on top of any moving car.

Chocking car wheels
When chocking car wheels, wait until movement stops and the slack adjusts before placing chock.

Place the chock while standing to the side of the equipment. Keep fingers and hands clear of the wheel, top of the rail, and other pinch points. Use only a sound wooden chock or a metal chock designed for chocking rail cars. Do not use a rail spike or other make shift object for chocking. Do not attempt to chock moving cars, except in an emergency and only if it is safe to attempt to do so!

Unexpected movement of equipment
To prevent unexpected movement while working on cars or equipment, set the hand brake, chock and secure the wheels. Protect yourself against sudden movement by never placing more that one foot inside of the rails unless the equipment wheels are braked and chocked.

Coupling/Uncoupling Rail Cars
Use experienced personnel only when you put someone in charge of working with the trackmobile operator for the purpose of moving, loading or unloading rail cars. The process of coupling rail cars can be the most dangerous part of working with rail cars.

If at all possible avoid putting your body inside the rails when coupling rail cars. If drawbars don't match, instruct the trackmobile operator to pull away from the car and remain stopped until you can position the drawbar(s). When you are clear, inform the operator to again attempt a coupling.

When coupling is complete make sure the operator is going to remain stopped while you connect air brake hoses and release the hand brake. When stepping in between cars to connect air brake hoses, keep one foot at all times on the outside of the rail. In case there is accidental car movement, you have a greater chance of being able to get out of any danger. Inform the operator when you are finished and clear of the cars.

Standing clear
Always stand clear of a coupling attempt.

Operating uncoupling lever
When operating the uncoupling lever, use your hand nearest the equipment to operate the lever.

Always face the direction of proposed movement. Do not jerk on the uncoupling lever, have the operator

provide slack to facilitate ease of unlocking coupler. Always look for pinch points and keep your hands

clear of these danger areas. Use the portion of the lever designed as the handle, do not run while trying to

uncouple or use your feet to attempt to operate the uncoupling lever.

Adjusting lift pin
Do not stick your fingers through the hole in the bottom of the coupler to help raise the block to open the coupler knuckle, always use the uncoupling lever designed for this purpose.

Adjusting unmatched couplers
Do not attempt to adjust the coupler or knuckle of a moving power unit or car. Do not attempt manual movement of coupler unless they move when you apply limited effort.

If a drawbar does not move with this limited effort, use a proper pry bar or power unit side-to-side moving coupler to make proper alignment and coupling.

To adjust a mismatched coupler, stop all movement of equipment. Allow at least 50 feet (15 meters) of working room between equipment and obtain positive confirmation of protection from operator that movement will not occur.

Do not adjust the coupler by kicking it with your foot!

Listen to what is going on about you, if you hear any equipment move, step clear immediately.

Opening knuckles
Do not place your leg or foot where the knuckle might fall on it. Do not stand in front of the drawbar to adjust or open the knuckle. Check for broken or missing knuckle pins to prevent the knuckle from falling to the ground when it is opened.

Air Hoses and Angle Valves

When connecting air hoses, keep one foot outside the rail whenever possible. When opening the angle valve, open it slowly, keeping your legs and feet clear of the air hose coupling. Listen for escaping air, which indicates a faulty or improper coupling that could fly apart. If you hear an air leak, close both angle valves and make sure there is no pressure in the hoses before adjusting or repairing the leak.

Never kick, strike, or jostle pressurized hose couplings. Before opening the angle valve to an uncoupled air hose, grasp the hose at the glad hand clear of the vent port. Brace the glad hand firmly against your thigh just above the knee and turn your face away from the glad hand before opening the angle valve.

Crossing Over Rail Equipment

Crossing Through a Standing Train or Cut of Cars
When crossing through a standing train or cut of cars, cross only between cars equipped with crossover platforms and hand holds. Always be prepared for sudden movement and maintain a firm grip.

Do not step on coupler, uncoupling lever, or drawbar while crossing between cars. Never cross underneath a coupler, find a car with a safe crossover platform. Do not attempt to cross over moving equipment, wait for all movement to stop before attempting crossover.

Quite often rail cars come into our facilities with defective or damaged ladders and crossing platforms. Extra caution must be taken when these conditions are present.

If possible use another car in the string to mount or cross between cars. Using a car(s) drawbar for a stepping stone can be very dangerous because each drawbar has several inches of slack and can easily sever a foot if the cars happen to move or is jarred.

Do Not crawl under a rail car to get to the other side of the car, use the cross walk on the end of the car. If a car's ladder to the roof is not safe to use, use another car's ladder to get to the top.


Getting On or Off Equipment

Getting on moving equipment (only in an emergency when necessary to get on moving equipment)
Face the equipment as it approaches you and make sure the speed will allow you to get on the equipment safely. Make sure equipment ladders, foot stirrups, etc. appear to be safe and sturdy. Make sure there are no obstructions such as switch stands, signals, close clearances, etc. in your path.

Always mount equipment from the side, using the step sill and side ladder. Do not use the uncoupling lever as a step. To get on moving coupled equipment, board the leading or approaching end of the cars if possible.

Getting off equipment
Face the equipment. Make sure that no obstructions or debris are where your feet will land.

Be ever alert for switch stands, close clearances, tie ends, uneven footing, etc. that could prevent you from getting off equipment safely. Except in an emergency, do not jump to the ground from any rail equipment.

Getting off moving equipment: (only in an emergency when it is necessary)
Face the direction the equipment is moving. Get off with the trailing foot first to direct you away from the equipment. Avoid jumping to the ground from any platform of rail equipment.

Using rail equipment ladders
When using a ladder to get on or off equipment, use the side ladder, not the end ladder. Climb up and down the ladder by placing the ball of your foot on the ladder rungs, not the toes or heels.

Operating Hand Brakes
Run-away rail cars impose an extreme danger at any time. Extreme care must be taken that rail car hand brakes are properly set any time they are disconnected from a power source. If you are unloading a rail car without a power source, you should also chock the wheel in addition to setting the hand brake.

Occasionally a rail car will be set on our siding with an inoperable hand brake mechanism. In this case, extreme precaution must be taken such as keeping this car attached to a car with brakes or a power source.

Determine brake location, end or side mounted. Determine brake position, high or low, right or left side. Except in an emergency or if making a gravity switch move, do not operate hand brakes on moving cars.

Stand on brake step or crossover platform to safely operate hand brake. Apply hand brakes by standing on the left side of the brake with your left foot on the ladder rung and your right foot on the brake platform. Grasp the ladder rung or top handhold with your left hand and operate the brake with your right hand.

Operate side-mounted hand brakes from the ground if the brake mechanism is within easy reach and you can safely operate it without straining too much and risking injury. End mounted without brake steps or crossover platforms: Do not operate the hand brakes from the ground unless proper safeguards are provided, such as blue signal protection.

To operate the hand brakes, stand on the car or on the ground at the side of the car. Do not use your feet to operate the hand brake. Do not place your feet on any movable part of the car, such as the uncoupling lever.

When necessary to move from the side ladder to the end ladder to operate the hand brake, be alert and hold onto the ladders firmly and make sure your feet are properly placed on the ladder rungs.

To apply a vertical wheel brake, place the release lever or pawl in the ON position by reaching behind the brake wheel, not through the wheel spokes. Turn the brake wheel clockwise to take up the slack in the brake chain. Watch for bunching or twisting of the brake chain as it may slip unexpectedly.

After the chain slack has been taken up, apply pressure to the brake wheel by turning it clockwise, using short, steady pulls without jerking. To release hand brakes equipped with a release lever, move the lever to the OFF position, pushing firmly until the brake releases.

If the quick release lever does not release the brake, operate the wheel with steady pressure. If the wheel does not easily release the brake, apply air to the car or get help. If the brakes still do not operate, bad-order the car.


To release hand brakes not equipped with a release lever (gradual release type), grip the wheel rim and turn the wheel counter-clockwise until the brake releases.

Operating Switches and Derails
Checking for damage and obstructions
Switches have different operating characteristics that could change because of weather, temperature, and maintenance. Before operating a switch, stop equipment at least 50 feet (15 meters) from the switch, when possible. Look in both directions and watch for moving equipment on adjacent tracks.

Visually inspect the switch to make sure it is not damaged or locked. Verify that switch points are not fouled by ballast, ice, snow, or other material. Remove foreign material from between the switch point and stock rail using a broom stick, or similar object. Do not use your hand or foot.

When handling a switch or derail, keep hands and feet clear to avoid being struck or caught by the switch lever handle. Do not strain your body and risk physical injury.

Defective switches
Immediately notify your supervisor of any switch that is defective, hard to throw, or in need of maintenance. Make proper repairs or discontinue use until proper repairs can be arranged for and completed. Label the defective switch with a tag to warn others of the defects and use is not recommended.

Operating ground throw or "flop over" switch
To operate a ground throw or "flop over" switch, face the switch squarely, standing firmly. Watch for conditions that may interfere with your footing. Release the latch, if so equipped.


Bring the lever to the straight-up position using good lifting practices. Shift your position so that your body is over the lever on its downward movement during the switching.

Push the lever handle to the latched position with slow, even pressure. Do not jerk or use unnecessary force. Keep hands and legs firmly braced and clear of the operating lever. Be prepared for lever to suddenly operate easily or stiffly.

Safe Car Roof Operations/Car Roof Fall Protections
Workers can lose their footing and slip off of car roof walkways made slippery by snow, ice, or rain. Standing on any other portion of the car roof than the walkway is strictly in violation of all safety procedures and cannot be condoned. It only increases the chance that a worker might slip and get hurt or fall from the top of a car.

Hatch doors on a windy day can be very dangerous if a worker is not careful and have been known to knock a worker off the top of a car. Extra help may be the safest approach under these conditions.

Riding or standing on the roof of a moving car can only be done while the car(s) are at the loadout spout when the string is moving at a creep or stopped. Always be aware of all overhead spouts, electrical wires and any other obstructions that could strike you while you are working on top of a rail car.

Additional safety training is required for employees at facilities equipped with car roof fall protection systems. Each employee required to get onto the top of cars while loading shall be wear a full body harness and shall be connected to the fall protection lifeline retractable cable assembly at all times while on the roof of the rail car.

Trained employees must also know how to properly maintain the fall protection system equipment and to report any items that are found to be unsatisfactory. An employee is never to use any PPE that is not safe for use.

Safe Trackmobile Operations
Only those employees who are qualified may operate the trackmobile. It is very important that each employee that is working in the area where cars are being moved be extra alert and stay clear of these cars and the track area that they occupy.

The operator of the trackmobile has limited visibility when hooked to a rail car, so you need to be the one who looks out for the trackmobile operator. If you are assisting the operator, it is your responsibility to remain in sight of or use radio communications with the operator.

Make sure grade crossings, crossing lights and switches are in proper operating conditions. The importance of these operational factors need extra attention during periods of inclement weather.

Blue Flagging
Safe positioning, loading and unloading rail cars depend on effective communications. Visual, verbal, or audible communication is the only way to ensure that everyone involved is alert to vehicle and car movement.

Blue flagging is one method use to prevent serious injuries that can be caused by failure to communicate. This Blue Flagging practice keeps unauthorized engines or trackmobiles from entering an occupied rail spur and striking a parked rail cars and yard workers.

A BLUE FLAG warning flag is placed at the rail spur entrance. Then a railroad switchman throws a lock-out switch with a derailer at the rail spur entrance. This ensures that engines or cars will not enter or leave the spur by derailing any vehicles that ignore the warning blue flag.

Track & Switch Maintenance
Poor condition of track and equipment is the cause of many rail yard accidents and derailments. Employee safety depends on the effectiveness of inspection and maintenance of all equipment.

At a minimum rail yards should be inspected for the following:

1.Deterioration of railroad ties
2.Excess spilled grain on tracks
3.Spikes missing or popped out of rail plates
4.Cracking or split rails
5.Switch points and plates oiled for free movement
6.Switch points are tight to the rail
7.In cold weather, clean the switches of ice & snow
8.Bolts on all rail joints should be tight.

9.Backstops should be checked to see if they are adequate and appropriate.
10.Where applicable, derails should be examined to see if they are secure, tight and operate correctly.

If maintenance is needed, report the conditions to your supervisor so appropriate measures can be taken to remedy the situation. Railroad equipment is very large and can be intimidating. But, training and awareness of dangers can make working around rail equipment safer.

Weather Conditions Affecting Safety
Inclement weather conditions can increase the dangers of working around rail equipment. As discussed in an earlier section of this training; snow, ice, rain or wind can make an ordinary task into one of increased dangers.

These conditions can also hinder your ability to communicate with other workers effectively due to poorer visibility as well as wind noise. ALWAYS use extra caution when weather conditions are not ideal for the situation.

Electrical Hazards
Long handled brooms and scrapers can be dangerous tools if used near overhead power lines. Metal handles are good electrical conductors.

Areas for cleaning rail cars should be positioned away from power lines. Do not clean any car that is setting under a power line!!

Hopper Gates & Roof Hatches
Famous last words, hopper car gates are designed to open and close easily. But, damage, wear and weather can make them almost impossible to open and close. At times it may take two or three persons to get a gate open far enough to unload a hopper.

The stress involved in the opening of a hopper gate by hand can be enough to cause serious back injuries. Manual pry bars cause the most injuries when the bar slips.

The safest way when using a pry bar to open a hopper door is for the worker to have a secure grip, feet securely planted and must not be off balance. Bouncing one's weight on a pry bar with either the bar slipping out or slipping off of the bar causes most injuries.

The safest way to operate the pry bar is by pulling up with the leg muscles and not the back muscles. Damaged or stuck hopper doors can be very irritating for workers. To minimize the chance for injuries, try to get additional help.

Grain Train Loading Crew Premium Pay vs. Safety
To receive the best rail rates, some railroads have put together freight rates based on numbers of cars in the unit train and/or the length of time that a facility has to load the unit train after the railroad has dropped the cars in your rail yard.

To compensate our employees for achieving the requirements for safe loading and grain grade requirements, FC has established a grain train premium pay program in addition to any regular or overtime pay. All employees who work on the train are eligible. Incentives are based on safety, moisture conformance, damage conformance, FM (foreign material) conformance, 15-hours-or-less efficiency unit trains, and weekends & holidays.

To receive any of the incentives for quality or time compliance, the train crew must first earn the safety incentive. The safety incentive is earned by loading the train without any incident involving personal injury or property damage.

Train Loading Emergency Procedures Poster
Due to the fact that some trains are loaded on weekends or during the night because of the time restraints to fulfill the railroad's freight rate incentives, FC requires each train crew to fill out a train crew poster identifying the duties of those employees on that train even if the trains are loaded during normal working hours.

The poster identifies who the trackmobile operator is and his duties are to stop the train, set the brakes, and not move the train until it is safe to do so when an emergency arises. When possible the engineer is to notify the main office of the emergency and request medical assistance. He is also to assist the injured, can provide first-aid and is required to let the grain superintendent on the crew that an emergency has occurred.

The grain superintendent is identified and his duties are to assist injured personnel, provide first-aid and direct other employees on the crew for assistance as needed. All other employees who are working on that train are also listed on the poster so an accurate headcount can be taken when an emergency situation occurs.