Railroads Balk at Safety Hotline Participation, Citing Concerns Over Worker Discipline Authority

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The major freight railroads say a disagreement over whether they will be permitted to discipline some workers who use a government hotline to report safety concerns has prevented them from keeping a March promise to join the program after a fiery derailment in Ohio prompted calls for reform.

Unions and workplace safety experts argue that the concept of disciplining employees who report safety concerns undermines the purpose of establishing a hotline, as workers will not utilize it if they fear retaliation. According to experts, programs such as this one overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration are especially essential in the railroad industry, where employees have a history of being terminated for reporting safety violations or injuries.

Debbie Berkowitz, a former high-ranking official at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration during the Obama administration, stated, “Their opposition to this hotline, which only increases protection for the public and workers, is part of a decades-long 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.”

However, the head of the Association of American Railroads, Ian Jefferies, expressed concern in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg on Thursday that the system could be abused by employees attempting to avoid discipline by reporting situations the railroad already knows about to the hotline.

The regulations of the hotline would protect employees who report unsafe conditions that the railroad is unaware of. However, railroads want the authority to discipline employees in other situations.

“The crux of the current dispute revolves around a significant nuance: situations in which the employer is aware of a safety rule violation without an employee report – referred to as a ‘known event’ – but the employee still reports the violation, thereby avoiding discipline,” Jefferies said.

All the major freight railroads have resisted joining the safety hotline for many years due to this concern and the belief that their internal reporting systems are adequate. However, railroad unions have repeatedly asserted that employees are reluctant to use the railroads’ own safety hotlines out of fear of retaliation.

Amtrak and a number of smaller railroads participate in the government reporting program, but none of the major freight railroads have joined.

A similar safety hotline used in the aviation industry allows employees to be disciplined if they report the same safety violation more than once within a five-year period, according to the railroad trade group. The railroads want a similar rule because, according to Jefferies, “most, if not all, ‘close call’ events are the result of employees not adhering to their employer’s established safety rules, resulting in dangerous situations whose consequences were narrowly avoided.”

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Rail Labor Unions Dispute Employee Blame in Railroad Safety Concerns

The notion that employees are the issue offends rail labor unions. Vince Verna of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union stated that it is evident that dismissing more workers will not address all of the industry’s safety issues. Since the derailment of a Norfolk Southern train in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, railroad safety has been a national priority.

This is old-fashioned, worn-out rhetoric that faults the worker for the inherent failures of all complex systems. “Blaming the employee is precisely what discourages workers from reporting unsafe conditions in the workplace,” said Verna, who serves on the committee of labor groups, railroads, and safety regulators that has been attempting to find a way to make this program work ever since Jefferies announced that the railroads would join it. This group will convene again the following week.

This argument, according to Berkowitz, a former OSHA official who is now a professor at Georgetown University, is a classic strategy.

“Dangerous companies always try to place the blame for all unsafe working conditions on employees, claiming that it’s the workers’ fault,” she said, despite the fact that statistics show that unsafe working conditions are responsible for almost all injuries.

Warren Flateau, a spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration, stated that the railroads must clearly do more to fulfill their promise to join the safety reporting program, which would provide anonymous online and paper forms for workers to report safety concerns.

In a letter sent to all railroad CEOs earlier this week, the administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, Amit Bose, stated that participation in the program “will play a critical role in reducing risk across the railroad operating environment generally.”

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

Current federal data indicate that a reportable injury occurs approximately every three hours. Approximately every eight hours, a derailment exceeds the FRA’s reporting threshold of $11,500 in property damage, according to Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department coalition. In other words, three times per day another East Palestine could exist. However, we believe this program could help mitigate future disasters of this nature.”

 

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Source: Independent

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