Transport Minister Marc Garneau has ordered rail companies to update rules to address employee fatigue.
Requirements on work-rest periods for rail workers, introduced in 2002 with only minor revisions since then, should reflect the latest science and fatigue management practices, Garneau said.
"We now have a better understanding of the extent to which fatigue can affect human performance and ultimately compromise railway safety. We need to make changes now," Garneau said in a release.
The new rules should address issues such as shift length, minimum rest periods and advance notice for work schedules, he said.
Transportation crews often work long and irregular hours, frequently in multiple time zones and challenging conditions, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada said in a report last fall.
The order comes amidst an ongoing ramp-up in crude oil transport by rail and follows Alberta Premier Rachel Notley's pledge to buy new oil tanker cars that could eventually move an additional 120,000 barrels a day in response to a lack of pipeline capacity.
The TSB has cited sleep-related fatigue as a factor in 31 freight train collisions or derailments since 1994, including the Lac-Megantic tragedy in July 2013 when an oil train explosion killed 47 people.
Since then, the amount of crude shipped by rail has shot up more than 140 per cent to a record 327,229 barrels a day in October 2018, with particularly steep increases over the past nine months.
The railways, in consultation with unions, must submit rules to Transport Canada by May 19 for approval by the end of June.
"Teamsters are encouraged to see the government announce plans to eventually tackle the issue of fatigue," Teamsters Canada spokesman Christopher Monette said in an email.
"To be clear, nothing Transport Canada announced today has an immediate effect on rail safety or our members' lives. We look forward to see what rules they eventually come up with."
Managing worker exhaustion in the rail industry has been on the TSB's list of key concerns since 2016 but the worry has now been extended to include marine and air operations.
TSB chairwoman Kathy Fox has said that Transport Canada, operators, unions, and employees all need to work together to prevent and manage exhaustion at work, which it identified as a risk or contributing factor in more than 90 investigations in the rail, marine and air transportation sectors since 1992.