Thursday, November 16, 2023

Rail employees who flag safety concerns are often penalized or even fired, according to a new report

Train cars at a Denver facility.
(Photo by Eli Imadali, special to ProPublica)
Rail workers who report problems such as load defects, faulty brakes, malfunctioning valves or other dangers often face retaliation, including furloughs and terminations, report Topher Sanders, Jessica Lussenhop, Dan Schwartz, Danelle Morton and Gabriel Sandoval of ProPublica. "Railroad companies have penalized workers for taking the time to make needed repairs and created a culture in which supervisors threaten and fire the very people hired to keep trains running safely," according to the report. "Regulators say they can't stop this intimidation."

While train derailment may be the most dramatic breach of train safety, other dangerous close calls, including escaped train cars carrying flammable materials, are on a long list of problems train corporations don't report. "The government trusts the rail companies to fix the underlying problems on their own, to heed workers' warnings," according to the report. "But as railroads strive to move their cargo faster, that honor system, ProPublica found, is being exploited. To squeeze the most money out of every minute, the companies are going to dangerous lengths to avoid disruptions — even those for safety repairs."

To substantiate its story, ProPublica "examined 15 years’ worth of federal lawsuits against rail companies, interviewed hundreds of workers including managers, listened to hours of audio recorded by workers and pored over decades of regulatory, judicial, legislative and industry records," according to the report. "We identified 111 court cases where workers alleged they had been disciplined or fired after reporting safety concerns; nearly 60% ended in settlements with the companies. Three in recent years resulted in jury verdicts of over $1 million for fired workers."

Rail inspectors who flag safety concerns are dubbed "complainers" who slow everything down and decrease profits. Supervisors that let issues slide are rewarded, ProPublica reports. "[Rail companies] use performance-pay systems that effectively penalize supervisors for taking the time to fix hazards and that pressure them to quash dissent," according to the report. "As a result, trains with known problems are rolling from yard to yard like ticking time bombs, getting passed down the line for the next crew to defuse — or defer."

Rail employees punished or fired for reporting safety problems can turn to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for whistleblower protection, but the agency takes "so long to conclude investigations that many workers, tired of waiting months for rulings, remove their complaints and sue the companies instead," ProPublica reports. "Once that happens, OSHA has no legal authority to continue its investigation, barring the agency from exposing repeat bad actors or patterns in the industry’s abuse of whistleblowers."

Read the full investigation, including the lengths many rail employees have gone to keep trains safe and how the rail companies have responded.

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