CARTA bus driver hospitalized as company investigated over lack of hazard training for employees

Wyatt Massey, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·5 min read

May 2—The CARTA driver already had a headache and was sick to her stomach when she approached her bus on Feb. 18. She had left the diesel bus idling when she went to the bathroom. As the driver got closer to the vehicle, the smell of exhaust was stronger. She vomited.

The driver was taken to CHI Memorial hospital, where she received oxygen and intravenous fluids and later recovered. But the incident triggered a Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation.

The state found that the Chattanooga Area Regional Transportation Authority did not conduct annual hazard training for drivers in 2020 and CARTA employees were not aware of the effects that hazardous chemicals would have on their bodies if they were exposed.

The administration requested a copy of CARTA's hazard communication program on Feb. 23 and Feb. 26, but those documents were not provided, according to the report. Documents that were provided to TOSHA, including information about a spill prevention program, did not meet the standards for hazard training.

Lisa Maragnano, executive director of CARTA, told the Times Free Press the company has a communication program. TOSHA was mistaken to say otherwise in the report and the organization has been notified, she said. CARTA did not provide training in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, despite TOSHA not suspending training requirements, she said.

"I just thought it was too much of a risk to get people in a room to do that kind of training," Maragnano said.

Lakecha Strickland, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1212, said the union has long asked CARTA to provide more training for drivers to better ensure safety of employees and passengers. The situation is frustrating after the company told employees they were essential workers and needed to work through the pandemic, she said.

There are ways to do training and be safe, whether online or in person, with limited numbers, Strickland said.

"COVID is not an excuse. You got Zoom. You can go in breakout rooms," she said. "You can have a minimum [class size]. COVID is not an excuse not to train your people in such a vital industry."

TOSHA cited the transportation authority for the lack of training materials and for not providing the annual refresher training to drivers.

Maragnano said the company is now having drivers watch a pre-recorded training class so they do not have to attend in person. After the virtual sessions, the drivers answer questions to show they understood the material, Maragnano said.

"Our employees' safety and the public's safety is our No. 1 priority. And that — we're always focused on that," she said. "COVID has made it a little more difficult, obviously, to do anything in person."

The Times Free Press asked CARTA why virtual training is being offered now but why the company elected not to do so in 2020. An answer was not provided.

According to the TOSHA report, "The employer stated the training had not been conducted due to COVID-19, but it was learned that the employees in the maintenance department had been given hazardous chemical training in 2020. It was also unclear if all employees were receiving annual training since the employer was not tracking and ensuring all employees came to the hazardous chemical training, when given."

Maragnano said the maintenance workers were easier to train because there are fewer of them, around 35, compared to the 175 drivers.

"There's no way to get all those folks trained in a small group, the 175," Maragnano said. "But on the maintenance side, because their exposure is so much greater with all the different chemicals and things that they utilize in their day-to-day jobs, and their group is much smaller, they were able to have training."

Strickland said drivers could be exposed to a variety of chemicals and need to know how their bodies will react. There are diesel fumes from some buses, as well as propane on the shuttles and, potentially, acid from the batteries on electric buses.

Strickland said drivers should receive that training, as well as safety refresher courses on how to operate equipment and sensitivity training for dealing with customers. People experiencing trauma or struggling with a mental illness sometimes ride public transportation, and drivers should know how to engage or look for warning signs, she said.

Maragnano said drivers receive training on distracted driving, routes, sensitivity, de-escalation, customer service and making buses accessible to people with disabilities.

On Feb. 16, a CARTA driver reported that Bus 141 had an exhaust leak. The bus was grounded for inspection the next day. According to the TOSHA report, the maintenance department found an oil leak that was dripping onto the engine but no exhaust leak. The oil leak was fixed and the bus returned to service on Feb. 18, the day the driver was hospitalized.

An inspection of the bus after the incident found that the levels of fumes were below the legal limit and "did not indicate an exhaust leak on the bus," according to the report.

Drivers need better and more frequent training on hazardous chemicals and how they affect the body because different people can have reactions, even if the fumes are below the legal limit, Strickland said.

"If it's a fume in the workplace, it's a hazard because it's affecting somebody. It doesn't matter if it met the legal limits or not, it's still a hazard in the workplace if somebody is getting ill due to something on the bus," she said.

Strickland said at least five drivers experienced sickness or nausea after driving Bus 141. CARTA's decision to put the bus back in circulation despite these concerns makes drivers feel overlooked, she said. The union is currently fighting the company to reinstate hazard pay for drivers, some of whom have been sickened with COVID-19 in the past year. CARTA cut the extra pay in January and said it may not have enough money to reinstate it.

The source of the fumes or whatever caused the driver's sickness in February remains unknown, though the TOSHA investigation said it is believed to be from diesel exhaust. The bus was grounded March 16 and is still not in operation.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.