More Anchorage bus drivers come forward with air quality complaints

People Mover bus drivers claim city’s transportation department has history of neglecting safety issues
People Mover bus drivers claim MOA’s transportation department has history of neglecting safety issues.
Published: Jul. 13, 2023 at 3:45 PM AKDT|Updated: Jul. 13, 2023 at 6:34 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - More bus drivers are coming forward with complaints of hazardous working conditions after an investigation uncovered high levels of silica dust in the city’s People Mover buses last month.

For the next three months, a third-party contractor will retest the air quality in and around the buses. Meanwhile, drivers will be required to complete a fitness test — which includes a check of the respiratory and pulmonary systems — to see if their health has been affected.

The city will now have to assess how it’s going to handle this situation moving forward, while some drivers begin lashing out about the department’s style of management.

This past May, one of the municipality’s public transportation workers shot video of a dust cloud at the place where city buses go at the end of the day for cleaning and repairs; the Anchorage Department of Public Transportation’s bus barn.

Workers refer to it as the “dust barn.”

In April, driver Timothy Hardesty also shot a video of a vent inside one of the buses. It shows a driver banging on the overhead vent, causing a shower of dust to rain into the interior of the bus.

“Every spring for the past nine years, I’ve contracted bronchitis,” Hardesty said.

Now more bus drivers are coming forward to talk about safety issues, particularly air quality.

“It gets really bad. The video doesn’t even give it justice to the actual problem,” said one driver who wished to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation.

“James,” as he will be named in this story, says the dust has caused him — and other drivers — a host of breathing problems.

“I personally have used a product to essentially rinse my nose out after work because it’s so caked up,” James said.

In May, after Hardesty filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) about the dust, inspectors began testing the facility in and around the buses. In seven cases, the levels were above the acceptable limits. Drivers were also tested. The municipality was fined nearly $80,000 and has been ordered to do follow-up testing for a period of 90 days.

“There are some controls that they’re going to have to do now to reduce those levels and protect the workers,” Martin Schwann, a private industrial hygienist, said.

If those levels are still high at the end of testing, there’s a chance that drivers could be mandated to shave their facial hair and wear masks.

James says he and a handful of other drivers will quit if they’re forced to shave.

“I’m not shaving my beard for anybody,” James said. “If I have to, then I guess I have to find someplace else to go.”

James blames management for letting the problem get this far. He says the city’s public transportation department has a history of letting safety issues get out of control, such as one bus that was driving on tires so worn out that the steel threads were showing. Workers took photos and video of the tires to document the safety hazard.

“If the bus tires would’ve blown out — the front tires — the driver would’ve lost steering and control and possibly could’ve gone into a major accident,” James said.

James says the images of the tires were taken in June of last year and, because of that issue, the city has since addressed it.

The executive director of the city’s public transportation department, Jamie Acton, said the agency now requires drivers to inspect buses before each trip.

“Bus operators are required to perform pre-trip inspections and are to immediately report all safety concerns, hazards, or violations to appropriate supervisory personnel including dispatch,” Acton wrote in an email. “Issues identified enroute and reported to dispatch are assessed on a case-by-case basis. Depending on the nature of the issue, a bus operator may receive a vehicle trade out. Upon assessment of the specific issue by dispatch and operations and determination that it is safe to do so, an operator may be requested to continue operations.”

Five drivers who agreed to speak said they have complained to their supervisors about a number of safety violations, such as bad air quality, leaking fluids, and four-way flashers not working. They all claim dispatchers told them to drive the buses anyway.

“They want the buses to continue to operate constantly so they make more money,” James said.

Drivers like James share a negative view of the department’s overall management style.

“Oh, management is — management is looking out for themselves,” James said. “They’re not looking out for the drivers or, in my opinion, the public.”

Teamsters Local 959, the union that represents Anchorage city bus drivers, had no comment for this story. The municipality’s public transportation department said they are going to hire a full-time safety coordinator once the funding is secured. The city says it will consider hiring an industrial hygienist who can also oversee some of these safety issues.