Shuttle Loading, Rail Safety: Planning, Training, Communication Key Components

Employees need to be able to recognize hazards in the rail yard with the potential to cause harm to personnel, equipment, or grain.

Detailed planning, proper training, and communication are key components for any shuttle load/unload operation.

Effective Communications

Prior to working around railcars, a set of requirements must be established between the rail crew and facility employees. Since a loading/unloading operation typically is loud by nature, depending solely on voice and radio communication is not ideal.

One way to address this issue is to use lights during dark hours or a spotter relaying hand and arm signals during daylight hours. Regardless of which method chosen, always ensure that the people you are working with understand what you are trying to communicate before an action is initiated.

Working Around Railcars

When an employee or crew member is required to go between or work on the end of cars, the following practices are recommended:

• The engine operator should have a clear understanding of the work to be performed.

• The engine operator should be notified by employee/crew of movement between cars and verify by radio.

• The engine operator should ensure the equipment will not move until the employee/crew requesting protection has reported by radio that they are no longer between or on the end of the equipment.

• The employee/crew going between or working on the end of equipment is to wait until all movement of equipment has stopped and the slack has adjusted.

• When stepping out from between cars or power units, employees/crew are to watch for equipment moving on adjacent tracks or roadways.

Car Roof Operations and Roof Fall Protections

Environmental conditions, such as walkways made slippery by snow, ice, or rain, can cause workers to lose their footing and potentially slip off rail car rooftops.

Employees should not stand on any other portion of the car roof other than the walkway. Windy days can pose an additional hazard for workers on top of cars. Riding or standing on the roof of a moving car should be done only while the car is at the loadout spout and when the car is creeping or stopped.

Additional safety training is advised for employees at facilities equipped with car roof fall protection systems.

In 2012, the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission issued a decision in Secretary of Labor vs. Erickson Air Crane, Inc. to reaffirm that fall protection is feasible (inside or contiguous to a building) and where it is not feasible (away from such areas).

The decision also reaffirmed that, for those areas where fall protection is not feasible, administrative controls can be used to protect employees.

Hopper Gates

Railcar hopper gates were designed to open and close easily. Damage, normal wear/tear, and weather can deteriorate a hopper gate to the point of it requiring additional help to move. Tools, such as a large ratchet/socket combo or a pry bar, are used commonly.

The safest way to use a pry bar is for the worker to have a secure grip, feet securely planted, and to pull up with the leg muscles to minimize back strain. To further reduce the chance of injury, seek additional help.

Crossing Over Cars

An employee should cross only between cars equipped with crossover platforms and hand holds. Always maintain a firm grip, and be prepared for sudden movement. Never step on a coupler, uncoupling lever, or draw bar while crossing through cars.

Do not cross underneath a coupler, instead, find a car with a safe crossover platform. Never attempt to cross over while the cars are in motion. Ensure that crossover platforms, ladders, and handrails are inspected. If possible, use another car in the string to mount or cross between cars.

Using a car drawbar as a step can be dangerous, because each drawbar has several inches of slack and a foot can easily be caught if the car happens to move or is jarred. Never cross under a rail car.

Track Etiquette

  • Do not cross within 25 feet of standing cars.
  • Do not criss in front of approaching cars.
  • Step over, not onto, the tracks, frogs or switches.
  • Do not walk between tracks.
  • Do not sit on the track or rail structures.
  • Do not sit on the steps or handrails of a moving power unit.
  • Do not attempt to mount, cross over, cross under or dismount a rail car while it is moving.

This article is one in a series of Safety Tips published by the National Grain and Feed Association (NGFA), Arlington, VA (202-289-0873). To view more NGFA Safety Tips, go to and click on Issues.

- From the September/October 2021 GRAIN JOURNAL