New York City transport workers experience high on-the-job stress, Cornell study shows

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Nicola Pytell

The three-day, pre-holiday New York City transport workers strike in December inconvenienced many New Yorkers, who shuffled on foot across town in freezing temperatures grumbling about the strikers' motives.

But the transport workers had good reason to demand adequate compensation for future hires, according to Cornell University Professor Samuel Bacharach. Days before the strike he issued the results of a survey showing that working on city subways and buses can be highly stressful and even dangerous.

An expert on workplace management, Bacharach is the McKelvey-Grant Professor of Labor Management at Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations and directs the school's New York City-based Institute for Workplace Studies and Smithers Institute for Alcohol-Related Workplace Studies.

In introducing his survey's results, Bacharach stated: "This document is meant to enhance the productive and constructive dialogue between labor and management and to bring empirical focus to important issues, but not in any way to take a position on those issues."

Bacharach's Transport Workers Union (TWU) Membership Survey showed that, even though respondents were generally satisfied with their jobs, they reported that:

• They were exposed at least monthly and often daily to such workplace hazards as dangerous chemicals, fumes and extreme temperatures.

• They experienced traumatic incidents at work regularly.

• More than 12 percent incurred a workplace injury severe enough to require medical treatment at least once in the past year.

• Nearly 80 percent lacked access to bathroom facilities, with more than 50 percent indicating they experienced problems at least several times a week as a result.

Although supervisor support was found to contribute significantly to overall employee job satisfaction, more than 57 percent of those surveyed reported they never turned to their supervisor for assistance or support. In contrast, nearly 50 percent reported turning to their coworkers for assistance or support daily or weekly.

Nearly 70 percent saw Metropolitan Transit Authority policies and procedures as generally unfair -- a perception found to be a significant predictor of low job satisfaction and high levels of stress and work-family conflicts.

The survey also showed quantitatively how increased stress leads to greater absenteeism.

Data for the survey were collected during spring and summer 2005 at random from 792 members -- 2.1 percent -- of the TWU employed as bus drivers, station agents and Rapid Transit Operations workers (such as subway conductors), with a response rate of 73 percent. The purpose was to gain a better understanding of the work conditions and work-related challenges faced by transport workers and their impact on the overall well-being of the workers and their families. Cornell's Survey Research Institute assisted with the data collection and survey instrument.

Over the past decade, Bacharach and colleagues at the Center for Workplace Studies and the Smithers Institute at the ILR School also have conducted similar studies on New York City store workers, steamfitters, iron workers, electricians, firefighters and Emergency Medical Services workers.

To obtain a copy of the report, visit the Smithers Institute Web site or contact Bacharach at or (212) 340-2850.