Metro-North Commuter Railroad crew members replacing timber on the Saugatuck River bridge last month were shocked when they looked down and realized their safety boat wasn't on station.

One rail worker, who asked not to be identified, confirmed the apparent March 19 safety lapse, saying the operator had gone to a nearby restaurant for lunch, only to have the boat then drift away from a pier. The crew spotted it empty and adrift.

The boat is supposed to be manned when crews work over water.

William Ordner, another Metro-North worker assigned to the bridge timber replacement job, said he complained when the boat repeatedly was taken from its station, only to be rebuffed by a foreman, who told him the operator could be summoned quickly.

"I had an argument the very first night with the foreman because all the rules in OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) say the boat has to be ready," said Ordner, an ironworker. "The gentleman assigned to the boat was rarely in the boat. Most of the time, he was on land."

"We were supposed to have a safety boat in the water in case someone fell off the bridge," said the worker who asked to have his name withheld.

Safeguards needed

The incident, the workers said, is just one more example of Metro-North's disregard for worker safety -- a pattern highlighted by Federal Railroad Administration inspection reports, fines against Metro-North and the FRA's "Operation Deep Dive" investigation of the railroad, which concluded that Metro-North focused on on-time performance at the expense of safety and maintenance.

Federal inspection reports between 2003 and 2013 contain thousands of "defects" -- the FRA's term for improper practices -- in Metro-North's system, including hundreds of citations for failing to comply with worker safety regulations.

A summary of fines levied against Metro-North over the last decade include several penalties for failing to follow-worker protection regulations.

The railroad was fined $5,000 in the death last May of Robert Luden, who was struck by a train in West Haven while working on closed tracks.

The area where the safety boat was supposed to be manned is in the vicinity of where the body of Annette L. White, a Maine woman who was struck and killed by a train, was found in the river.

'Three Stooges'

In the recent incident involving the runaway boat, Metro-North did not respond to a request for comment about safety practices.

State Sen. Toni, R-Wilton, ranking member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee, likened the issue to an episode with three of Hollywood's most notorious knuckleheads.

"You can't make this up. It reminds me of 'The Three Stooges,' " Boucher said. "How dumb can you possibly be?"

Westport police were called to the scene over reports of a loose boat. Westport police Capt. Sam Arciola said when he arrived, Metro-North workers had regained control of the boat, so no further action was warranted.

"There wasn't any infraction that occurred," Arciola said.

Lax supervision

Ordner said he repeatedly clashed with a supervisor over the lack of a safety boat at the work site, which he said violates federal OSHA regulations.

He said workers were forced to make repairs to open sections of the bridge where timbers had been removed without any protection regarding falls, such as a guard rail or required life vests.

Ordner said supervisors are generally unresponsive when workers point out a lack of required safeguards, and workers, out of fear they will be given bad assignments or evaluated negatively, offer little argument.

"Fall protection was basically ignored on the bridge, but everybody said that if something happened it will be OK," Ordner said. "Ultimately, we all worked because we had too. It was a perfect example of a choice between safety and getting something done."

The second worker said despite a flurry of recent media reports about Metro-North failings, and a pledge by the railroad to make significant improvements in its operations, nothing has really changed.

"It has actually gotten worse in light of the FRA report that said the company puts on-time performance ahead of safety," the worker said.