Kansas City, Missouri – November 18, 2023
In the fast-paced world of the railroad industry, where efficiency is king, a ProPublica investigation reveals a troubling trend – the prioritization of speed over safety. The article sheds light on the intimidation tactics used by powerful railroad companies to stifle employees’ concerns about safety, resulting in a hazardous work environment.
Bradley Haynes, an inspector at a Union Pacific railyard in Kansas City, Missouri, became a whistleblower, highlighting how pressure to meet productivity metrics often led to overlooking safety concerns. In one instance, he flagged a potentially dangerous situation involving a 40-pound GPS box hanging precariously from a train car, but his concerns were dismissed to maintain the yard’s efficiency.
The investigation exposes a significant gap in the safety statistics provided by the rail industry, which typically focuses on major accidents. ProPublica’s findings indicate a pervasive issue of near misses, incidents of trains breaking apart, slipping off tracks, or rolling unmanned – all potential precursors to more severe safety risks. The companies, driven by profit motives, exploit an honor system that relies on them to address underlying problems without mandatory reporting of incidents that don’t result in significant injuries or damage.
To meet tight schedules and maximize profits, rail companies implement performance-pay systems that penalize supervisors for addressing safety hazards. The article presents evidence of a culture of fear and intimidation, with supervisors pressuring workers to overlook safety concerns and retaliating against those who report issues. Whistleblower protections offered by regulatory bodies such as the “Federal Railroad Administration (FRA)” and “the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)” are shown to be insufficient, with workers facing challenges in proving managerial intent and enduring lengthy investigations.
ProPublica’s comprehensive examination includes a review of 15 years of federal lawsuits against rail companies, interviews with hundreds of industry workers, and analysis of audio recordings made by employees. The investigation identifies 111 court cases where workers alleged disciplinary action or termination after reporting safety concerns, with nearly 60% resulting in settlements. Three recent cases saw jury verdicts exceeding $1 million for the fired workers.
Railroad companies mentioned in the article, including Union Pacific, BNSF, Norfolk Southern, and CSX, generally declined to comment on specific cases but asserted their commitment to safety and non-retaliation policies.
The article concludes by pointing out the elusive nature of accountability in the industry, emphasizing the need for reforms. The proposed Rail Worker and Community Safety Act, introduced by lawmakers in September, seeks to establish a close-call reporting system, prohibit retaliation for sick leave use, increase funding for FRA inspectors, and expand the U.S. transportation secretary’s rule-making authority. The piece calls for industry-wide changes to address the deep-rooted culture of fear and ensure the well-being of rail workers and the communities they serve.