9 Tips for Staying Safe While Working at a Rail Yard | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Having helped railroad workers, retirees and their families with injury, occupational illness and wrongful death cases for more than 30 years, I know better than most that working in and around trains can be dangerous. Rail yards and machine shops pose particular risks to rail employees’ health and lives because, in addition to moving vehicles, chemical, electrical and hazardous substance hazards exist in abundance.

The other thing I have learned during my decades as a railroad injury, illness and wrongful death attorney is that rail corporations will try almost anything to convince a jury that a worker inflicted harm on him or herself by violating safety rules and ignoring standard procedures. Amtrak, CSX, Norfolk Southern and the rest know that they can only be held accountable under a worker-protection law like the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) or the Safety Appliance Act (SAA) if evidence shows that the company or its managers acted negligently.

Portraying railroad employees as indifferent toward or contemptuous of safety rules and regulations allows rail corporations to avoid paying compensation and other monetary damages to victims of their own bad practices. Railroad workers can protect themselves and close off such lines of defense against FELA and SSA claims by consistently following nine general rail yard safety tips.


First, remember that the rules that drivers and pedestrians should follow to avoid getting hit by a train apply equally to rail yard workers. Cross tracks at only designated crossings and look both ways before stepping onto a rail bed. Leave plenty of space between you and a stopped train; 50 feet should suffice. Always yield right of way to an approaching train, and keep in mind that electric locomotives moving at yard speeds will make almost no noise.

Specific to rail yard work

  • Participate actively in safety briefings. Take notes, ask questions and clarify who is responsible for which safety-related task, such as tagging out electrical equipment, posting signs or working flags.
  • Use all appropriate safety gear. Wear head, eye and ear protection at almost all times when you are in the yard. Use facemasks and respirators when necessary, especially when doing work that might expose you to asbestos.
  • Perform only the tasks that you are trained and authorized to perform. Do not operate lifts, crew cranes or weld or cut metal unless you have the appropriate certifications. Courts have ruled that railroad workers have the right to refuse requests to do jobs that they are not qualified to perform.
  • Do not modify tools. Even attaching a short length of pipe to a wrench handle can make succeeding with a railroad injury or wrongful death claim impossible.
  • Use stairs, ladders and handholds. Courts that hear FELA cases impose high standards for acting in your own best interest to prevent injuries.
  • Do not walk under suspended loads. Watch for spotters and obey their instructions to walk around areas where falling objects could injure or kill workers.
  • Keep yourself and your equipment several feet away from the sides of tracks on which trains could pass. Locomotives and rail car are wider than the tracks on which they travel. A passing train can catch loose clothing, strike people or send equipment airborne.
  • Make note of any damage to locomotives, rail cars or equipment, and report safety issues to managers or supervisors. Railroad employees have whistleblower protections. Rail companies that harass, demote, reassign or fire employees for calling attention to unsafe working condition often end up paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages and fines.