Do Railroad Workers Face an Increased Risk of Work Injury and Accidents on the Job?


Do Railroad Workers Face an Increased Risk of Work Injury and Accidents on the Job?

There are hundreds of trains, owned by a great many different railroad companies, operating today in Indiana and Illinois. Quietly, these railway systems are moving cargo and passengers along rails that crisscross our part of the country almost non-stop and often unnoticed. They’re everywhere: for example, just check out the spider web of rails crossing through Indiana in the online map provided by the Indiana Department of Transportation.

Different Kinds of Railroads Operate in Indiana and Illinois

Different trains operate for different reasons. There are all sorts of railroad operations here in our part of the country. Indiana and Illinois have high traffic common freight carriers like U.S. Rail and Canadian National Railway moving trains through our communities carrying freight of all kinds (some of it dangerous like the oil trains we’ve discussed in prior posts).

We also have passenger carriers like Amtrak and Chicago Transit Authority, where people travel by train for work or pleasure, as well as private freight carriers where companies move their own cargo via their own rail system.

New Rails Planned for Indiana

And there are plans for more rails to be built here. Just last month, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority announced its $1.6 Million grant to help the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District raise the necessary $4,000,000 needed to get preliminary plans ready for a proposed new double track rail system moving from Gary to Michigan City.

The state hopes to get a winning bid from the federal government, which would then provide a needed $200,000,000 to fund the new rail system. The final application must be presented to the Federal Transit Administration by August 2017.

Right now, the plans are for a double track system to be built from Tennessee Street in Gary to York Street in Michigan City.

Railroad Companies Cutting Costs and Expenses as Profits Fall

This is happening even though railroad companies are making the news for generating less revenue because of less freight being moved over rails in the United States. For example, CSX Railroad (the largest railroad operating on the east coast) announced last month that it had a 19% drop in profits in the first quarter of 2016, and in response it laid off railroad workers and took around 400 of its locomotives off the schedule. CSX plans to continue cutting back, too, citing falling coal demand as the big reason that it has to cut expenses and downsize.

This follows in the pattern of others, like Norfolk Southern, BNSF Railway, and Canadian Pacific which have also laid off workers and cut back on expenses because of economic pressures.

Railroad Workers in Indiana and Illinois

All these railroad companies must have employees that work to operate these heavy machines, as well as repairing and maintaining them. Other railroad jobs include loading and unloading freight and cargo, which can be a very specialized job when hazardous or volatile cargo is involved. Passenger trains need railroad workers to assist travelers and deal with their needs. Railroad companies also need workers to monitor the tracks themselves as well as the crossings and make sure they are safe.

Working for a railroad company is not only specialized work, it is dangerous work. The hazards are many; so much so that for over 100 years, there have been special federal laws on the books to protect railroad workers who are hurt while working on the job.

In 1908, the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) was passed and it is still in effect today. It has been amended and expanded over the years to meet the changing needs of the railroad worker. Today, FELA is the cornerstone of federal and state regulation that works to help railroad workers and their families who are hurt in accidents while working on an American railway, in or around trains and rails.

Railroad workers can use FELA to file claims with their employer for compensation to cover their damages or they can choose to file a lawsuit in federal court or state court against their employer to get the railroad company to take financial responsibility for what has happened to the railroad worker.

FELA is a different system than the worker’s compensation system that applies to Indiana and Illinois workers generally. Railroad workers must file their claims via the FELA system because they are not covered by the general workers’ compensation systems operated by the states.

FELA also establishes protocols for what railroad companies are supposed to do insofar as keeping their employees safe. FELA sets rules and regulations for health and safety standards, and therefore liabilty standards, for American railroad companies and their working conditions.

If you are a railroad worker hurt on the job in Indiana or Illinois, then your injury claim will be controlled by FELA.

The real question, however, is not how will railroad workers be protected if there is an accident on the job, but how great is the danger that someone is going to be hurt while working on their job for a railroad company today, given the current cost-cutting measures?

More on this issue in our next post. Let’s all be careful out there!

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