In 2011, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railroad allegedly terminated Michael Elliot because he reported dozens of safety violations to federal authorities. Our firm represented Mr. Elliot in a whistleblower case in 2015 and helped him receive a jury award of $1.25 million. At the time, we hoped to see an end of railroads disciplining and firing railroad employees for reporting safety concerns. However, a recent article from the Associated Press shows that the same reporting issues continue to fester.

Government Hotline to Report Safety Concerns

At the core of the current strife between railways and their workers is a proposed government hotline that would allow workers to report safety concerns. The Federal Railroad Administration would oversee the hotline and the rules of the hotline would provide immunity for workers who report any unsafe conditions the railroad doesn’t know about.

The problem? The railroads want to be able to discipline workers when reporting in other situations.

What the Railroads are Saying

The railroads’ concern is that the proposed hotline could be abused by workers who try to avoid discipline by reporting situations a railroad already knows about. According to Ian Jeffries, head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, “the crux of the current dispute centers on a significant nuance: situations where the employer is aware of a safety rule violation without any employee report – referred to as a ‘known event’ – but the employee reports the event anyway and therefore avoids discipline.”

For years, all the major freight railroads have resisted joining the safety hotline because of this concern and because they believe their own internal reporting systems are sufficient.

What Workers and Unions are saying

Unions, workers and workplace safety experts fear that the railroads’ ability to discipline workers would undermine the purpose of creating a hotline. The idea is that workers wouldn’t use the hotline since they’d worry about retribution. A result is an apparent applauding of the railroads’ efforts to suppress reporting injuries and hazards.

According to Debbie Berkowitz, a former top-ranking official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, “[the railways’] opposition to this hotline — which only increases protection for public and workers — is just part of a decades-old effort to suppress reporting of injury and hazards so that they can appear to the public and regulators as safer than they are…I mean, that’s what this is all about.”

What the Government is saying

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flateau said the railroads clearly need to do more to fulfill their promise to join the safety reporting program. Federal Railroad Administration chief Amit Bose told all the railroads’ CEOs in a letter earlier this week that he believes participating in the program “will play a critical role in reducing risk across the railroad operating environment generally.”

“Current federal data shows that approximately every three hours, there is a reportable injury. Approximately every eight hours, there is a derailment that reaches the FRA’s reporting threshold of $11,500 in damage,” said Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department coalition. “In other words, three times every day there could be another East Palestine. But we believe this program could help mitigate such future disasters.”

Contact Rossi Vucinovich for Help

If you sustained a railroad injury, or believe you were retaliated against for reporting a workplace hazard, please contact our law firm for help. Rossi Vucinovich PC has been helping railroad employees and people injured in railroad accidents recover from railroad injuries for over 50 years. We are dedicated to helping you obtain the benefits you need to treat your injuries, pay your bills, and continue supporting your families. Do yourself a favor and contact us today to get the legal help you deserve.