No government safety rules are set for vehicle that killed worker at Bush airport
By ZAIN SHAUK
Oct. 28, 2010, 10:51PM
The automated tram that struck and killed a contractor Tuesday at Bush Intercontinental Airport did not meet government safety regulations for operation because none exist for the vehicle, according to city, state and federal officials.
While trains, elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks are inspected and cited for violations according to various public codes, there are no enforceable standards for the unmanned trams that shuttle about 5,000 travelers between the airport’s terminals every hour, at speeds as high as 33 mph.
Asked who sets safety regulations for the system and others like it, representatives from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Railroad Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation and the city of Houston all said the same thing: Not us.
Bush Intercontinental Airport leaves safety clearance for the tram system up to the companies who built and run it, said Marlene McClinton, a spokeswoman for the Houston Airport System.
There are no government regulations requiring, for example, that cameras be installed to monitor operations of the computer-controlled trams, or that observers regularly view such video, or that other warning systems are implemented to halt trams if someone is on the track.
Travis Turner, an employee for contractor PBSJ Corporation, was one of two workers who were on the track Tuesday conducting their “normal duties” when they were hit by a tram on a stretch of track between the Marriott Hotel and Terminal B, according to the airport.
Turner died at the scene, and the other worker, who was not identified, was injured and airlifted to Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Standards not binding
The automated tram is operated by Johnson Controls, Inc., of Wisconsin and was built by Bombardier Transportation of Montreal.
Bombardier builds and inspects its automated tram systems, which it has constructed at airports nationwide, in accordance with standards developed by the American Society of Civil Engineers, said Maryanne Roberts, a spokeswoman for Bombardier.
But those standards are not binding or enforceable, functioning more like guidelines than regulations, said Joan Buhrman, a spokeswoman for the society.
“They’re not law, they’re voluntary standards,” Buhrman said. “So it’s sort of the practice of the profession. It’s not as though we’re a legal body that sets the laws on what you must do.”
Johnson Controls, which operates the automated system, handles its inspections according to its own safety protocols, McClinton said.
Although the city hires inspectors to approve elevators, escalators and moving walkways for operation, a similar system is not in place for automated trams, said Mike Dorosk, Houston’s senior elevator inspector who for 13 years coordinated regulation of conveyance devices at the airport.
Airports nationwide operate their automated trams in accordance with ASCE standards, but it was unclear whether they are regulated by local authorities, since federal agencies have not established rules for the systems as they have done for trains.
Automated trams at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, for example, are not regulated, although they are inspected by the operating company, OEM, in accordance with the ASCE standards, according to the airport.
Clark County, Nev., is one area that has adopted the ASCE standards into an ordinance in order to be able to regulate automated people movers at Las Vegas’ McCarran Airport and hotels on the city’s popular strip, said Dave Durkee, principal engineer for the county.
“If you didn’t have any of these laws and your airport wasn’t following any of these standards, as a regulatory agency you would have no real authority to go out there and tell them to fix it, or how to fix it, or why,” Durkee said.
Johnson Controls, which operates similar people-mover systems around the country, also ran an automated tram service at Miami International Airport in 2008, when a tram overran a stop and crashed into a wall, injuring five people.
Miami International Airport has since terminated its contract with Johnson Controls and is suing the company.
A Continental Airlines employee is also suing Johnson Controls for an incident involving a tram at Bush Intercontinental Airport, said Marty Herring, her attorney. The tram doors closed on her and were not opened by overseeing personnel, causing injury, Herring said. A passerby helped to open the doors and free the employee, he said.
The workers hit by the tram at Bush were on its elevated track, and their presence in the area was not unexpected, McClinton said.
OSHA is investigating the cause of the incident.
Turner was “performing routine construction inspection services” on the day of the crash, PBSJ Corporation spokeswoman Kathe Jackson said in an e-mail.
The injured worker is an employee for Weber LLC., a construction company specializing in highways, bridges and airports, said company administrator Jim Hall.
The men “were tasked with repairing a handrail in a location more than 150 feet from where the accident occurred,” according to a statement from Johnson Controls.
Johnson Controls has safety protocols for its operations but said: “It is not clear, however, whether the parties involved in the accident were in compliance with these safety protocols.”
Representatives for PBSJ Corp. and Weber LLC would not comment on the workers’ actions and the specifics surrounding the incident.
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