Observation Then Action Lead to Safer Rail Transport

Observation Then Action Lead to Safer Rail Transport

The American Evaluation Association will honor a Washington, DC-based federal employee with its 2009 Alva and Gunnar Myrdal Government Award. His work - and influence - has been instrumental in safety initiatives that led to reduced derailments and fewer injuries, as well as new federal safety legislation.

Michael Coplen, a Senior Human Factors Program Manager in the Office of Research and Development with the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Railroad Administration, began his career some 30 years ago first as a brakeman and then as a locomotive engineer. He saw firsthand the hazards that come with the job and watched death claim co-workers in crashes that hit too close to home. While some of these tragic incidents were likely related to extended sleep deprivation, it was his own lack of sleep that resulted in a near collision and an eye-opening work/rest log that became the impetus for Coplen's subsequent change of career.

As a young rail employee, Coplen became increasingly concerned about the dangers brought on by fatigue resulting from long hours, irregular scheduling, and interrupted sleep. Being naturally inclined toward evaluation, and long before he knew the field existed, Coplen began recording his own sleep-wake schedule and reported his observations in the news media, citing bouts of up to 26 hours with no sleep and one of every 6 days with less than 5 hours of sleep. He has dedicated the last 20 years to serving as a bridge for change. Through Coplen's efforts to spearhead safety initiatives, his pilot projects in the rail industry have seen significant reductions in at-risk behaviors and locomotive engineer de-certifications, as well as improvements in rule violations and personal safety awareness.

Coplen's persistent efforts with pilot demonstration projects were an essential part of the development of FRA's Risk Reduction Program. Coplen currently manages $2 million of federal funding each year and, over the past 10 years, has been responsible for designing, implementing, and evaluating numerous pilot demonstration projects - the majority of which are related to safety culture change. Overall, these pilot programs have resulted in significant safety improvements, including: an 80% drop in injury rates and 76% drop in reportable injuries in a station services department, a 72% drop in locomotive engineer de-certification rates with road crews, a 69% reduction in human factors yard derailment rates, an 86% drop in rules violations, a threefold increase in car moves between derailments, and marked improvements in labor management relations.

"Mike is committed to conducting research and evaluations that have an impact on safety," says Michael Quinn Patton, who nominated Coplen for the AEA award. "He's learned that getting findings used is complex. He says, "If I've learned anything from my experience as a program manager over the past 10 years it's that all too often our evaluation research reports do little more than gather dust in the hallowed halls of federal science. I've come to realize that there is an art, a craft, and a science to increasing the use and impact of R&D projects and evaluation." He has become an expert in the art, craft, and science of government evaluation, which is the reason for this AEA award nomination."

"I am deeply honored and humbled by this award, the most meaningful of my career," says Coplen. "It highlights how individuals in federal government - with dedication, perseverance, and a utilization-focused evaluation approach - can make a real difference."

This is the first time this award has been given to a U.S. Department of Transportation employee. Late Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) was a former recipient of the award.

Coplen holds an M.A. in Management and Organizational Behavior from the University of Nebraska, and has completed extensive post-master's coursework toward a Ph.D. in Human Factors at the University of Connecticut. He holds professional memberships in the American Evaluation Association and the Association of Professional Sleep Societies. He is Chair of the U.S. DOT Human Factors Coordinating Committee, which recently hosted the 2009 International Conference on Fatigue Management in Transportation Operations held in Boston.

The American Evaluation Association is an international professional association with approximately 5500 members representing all 50 states in the US as well as more than 60 countries. The association will hold an awards ceremony on Friday, Nov. 13, during its Evaluation 2009 conference to be held in Orlando, Fl.

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