Railroads resist joining safety hotline because they want to be able to discipline workers

Aug 24, 2023, 4:17 PM | Updated: 4:20 pm

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The major freight railroads say a disagreement over whether they will be allowed to discipline some workers who use a government hotline to report safety concerns has kept them from following through on the promise they made back in March to join the program after a fiery Ohio derailment prompted calls for reforms.

Unions and workplace safety experts say the idea of disciplining workers who report safety concerns undermines the purpose of creating such a hotline because workers won’t use it if they fear retribution. Programs like this one overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration are especially important in an industry like railroads where there is a long history of workers being fired for reporting safety violations or injuries, experts say.

“Their 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,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who used to be a top-ranking official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration. “I mean, that’s what this is all about.”

But the head of the Association of American Railroads trade group, Ian Jefferies, said Thursday in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg that the railroads’ concern is that the system could be abused by workers who try to avoid discipline by reporting situations a railroad already knows about to the hotline.

The rules of the hotline would provide immunity for workers who report any unsafe conditions the railroad doesn’t know about. But the railroads want to right to be able to discipline workers in other situations.

“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,” Jefferies said.

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. But railroad unions have consistently said workers are reluctant to use the railroads’ own safety hotlines because they fear retribution.

Amtrak and several dozen small railroads do use the government reporting program, but none of the big freight railroads have signed on to it.

The railroad trade group said that a similar safety hotline used in the aviation industry allows workers to be disciplined if they report the same safety violation more than once in a five-year period. The railroads want a similar rule for their industry because Jefferies said “most if not all ‘close call’ events result from employees not adhering to established safety rules put in place by their employer, creating dangerous situations the consequences of which were narrowly avoided.”

Rail unions bristle at that notion that workers are the problem. Vince Verna with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union said it’s clear that firing more workers won’t solve all the safety problems in the industry. And railroad safety has been a key concern nationwide ever since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on Feb. 3.

“This is really old-school, tired rhetoric that blames the worker for the failures that are inherent in all complicated systems. Blaming the worker is exactly what leads workers to not report unsafe conditions in the workplace,” said Verna, who serves on the committee of labor groups, railroads and safety regulators who have been trying to find a way to make this program work ever since Jefferies announced the railroads would sign on to it. That group is set to meet again next week.

Berkowitz, the former OSHA official who is now a professor at Georgetown University, said that argument is a classic tactic.

“Dangerous companies always try to blame all unsafe conditions on workers — that it’s the unsafe workers — when the statistics are really clear that it’s unsafe conditions that cause almost all injuries,” she said.

Federal Railroad Administration spokesman Warren Flateau said the railroads clearly need to do more to fulfill their promise to join the safety reporting program that would give workers several ways to report concerns, including an online option and an old-fashioned printed form that can be filled out anonymously.

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.”

Just last week, the Transportation Trades Department coalition that includes all the rail unions sent letters to the CEOs of Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, CPKC, Canadian National and CSX railroads urging them to follow through on their commitments to join the government hotline to help prevent another derailment like the one that generated a toxic black plume of smoke in East Palestine, Ohio, and forced thousands to evacuate their homes.

“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.”

United States News

Associated Press

Vehicle crashes into building where birthday party held, injuring children and adults, sheriff says

BERLIN TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) — A vehicle drove through a boat club building where a children’s birthday celebration was taking place Saturday, seriously injuring a number of children and adults, a Michigan sheriff said in a news release. The victims were taken to several area hospitals after the crash that occurred at about 3 p.m. […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

3 hospitalized after knife attack on party boat in New York City, along East River in Brooklyn

NEW YORK (AP) — A knife attack on a crowded party boat at a New York City pier Saturday resulted in the hospitalization of three people, police said. A 911 call came in around 5 p.m. reporting the assault along the East River near 58th Street and the Brooklyn Army Terminal warehouse, Detective Sophia Mason […]

2 hours ago

Associated Press

Autoworkers union celebrates breakthrough win in Tennessee and takes aim at more plants in the South

DALLAS (AP) — The United Auto Workers’ overwhelming election victory at a Volkswagen plant in Tennessee is giving the union hope that it can make broader inroads in the South, the least unionized part of the country. The UAW won a stunning 73% of the vote at VW after losing elections in 2014 and 2019. […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

Conditions improve for students shot in Maryland park on ‘senior skip day’

GREENBELT, Md. (AP) — Three of the five youths shot in a suburban Washington, D.C., park during a high school “senior skip day” gathering have been released from the hospital, while the condition of the most seriously injured has improved, authorities said Saturday. Police in Greenbelt, Maryland, are asking the public to share video footage […]

5 hours ago

Associated Press

New York lawmakers pass $237 billion budget addressing housing construction and migrants

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York lawmakers passed a $237 billion state budget Saturday that includes plans to spur housing construction and combat unlicensed marijuana stores. The package also includes a raft of other measures ranging from expediting the closure of some state prisons, addressing the recent influx of migrants, and continuing the pandemic-era policy […]

6 hours ago

SANTA FE, NEW MEXICO - DECEMBER 9, 2019: A copy of the record album, 'Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison'...

Associated Press

Record Store Day celebrates indie retail music sellers as they ride vinyl’s popularity wave

Record Store Day, a holiday invented at a gathering of independent record store owners and employees in 2007, will be observed Saturday.

9 hours ago

Sponsored Articles


Midwestern University

Midwestern University Clinics: transforming health care in the valley

Midwestern University, long a fixture of comprehensive health care education in the West Valley, is also a recognized leader in community health care.


DISC Desert Institute for Spine Care

Sciatica pain is treatable but surgery may be required

Sciatica pain is one of the most common ailments a person can face, and if not taken seriously, it could become one of the most harmful.


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.

Railroads resist joining safety hotline because they want to be able to discipline workers