Freight and passenger railroads regularly tout their safety records, but working on and around trains remains dangerous. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics recorded 9 fatal accidents in the railroad industry during 2019. That same year, 3,856 railroad employees suffered work-related injuries.

Incidents that took workers’ lives and sent them to hospitals ranged from crashes between trains and with vehicles at crossings to falls, equipment failures and fires. Several railroaders also hurt themselves while lifting and carrying objects and while operating machines.

Off the job, occupational illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cancer and mesothelioma took an equal or greater toll on people who retired from railroad jobs or left the industry for other careers. The Federal Railroad Administration recognizes six major categories of deadly and debilitating health problems as being linked to working on and around trains. These are

  • Skin diseases or disorders caused by coming into contact with caustic and toxic substances,
  • Diseases of the lungs caused by breathing in dust or particulates such as asbestos fibers and particles in diesel exhaust,
  • Respiratory conditions caused by breathing in toxic fumes,
  • Poisoning by ingesting or inhaling toxic substances,
  • Disorders due to physical agents that are not toxic (e.g., sand, gravel), and
  • Repetitive stress disorders.

When railroad workers get hurt on the job or develop occupational illnesses, a law called the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) allows them to seek compensation from their employer for medical expenses and other economic and noneconomic loses.



An employee can greatly improve their chances of succeeding with a FELA claim by taking certain actions after suffering an injury or receiving a diagnosis of an occupational illness. Most the steps listed below should be taken whether the FELA claim arises from an injury or illness.

Seek Medical Care

Evidence must exist that an injury occurred or a illness exists. The medical records a worker presents to support their FELA claim must also confirm that the injury or illness was serious.

Railroad employees are allowed to choose their own doctors, pharmacists, therapists and other health care providers. Additionally, a rail corporation cannot force its employee to allow a manger to accompany them during a visit to an emergency room, hospital or clinic.

Report the Injury or Illness to Managers and Supervisors

The company will have standard forms to complete. Submit the paperwork in a timely manner, but take the time to provide as much detail as possible about the accident/exposures and injuries/symptoms. The official accident or incident report will play a central role as the FELA case progresses toward a settlement or court trial.

Importantly, railroad workers who develop occupational illnesses are not required to file reports at the time of their exposure(s) to toxic and disease-causing materials.

Ask Coworkers About the Accident or Working Conditions

Doing this before filing the official accident or incident report will help fill in gaps and clarify many issues. Coworkers may also be willing to provide testimony that supports the argument that the company owes compensation.

It can help to speak with a union representative, as well. Unions keep lists of qualified doctors and experienced FELA attorneys. The union will also do what it can to protect a current employee from retaliation for reporting a safety issue.

Prepare and Update a ‘Personal Injury Report’

Write or record an account of what happened and the consequences of getting injured or becoming ill. Add to this account as new evidence comes to light, symptoms worsen or improve, and responses from the railroad come in. Also, keep files on medical bills and paperwork, days missed from work and all other expenses incurred as a result of the injury or illness.

This material will help the FELA attorney develop the case and prepare settlement requests. The personal report will also serve as a check against the official report submitted to the company.

Hire a FELA Attorney

This is not a first step to take, but it is often an essential one. Railroad companies almost always contest FELA claims, and the corporation will have its own legal team. Simply leveling the playing field requires an injured or ill railroader to obtain their own legal advice and representation.

Further, filing a FELA claim amounts to suing the company for negligence. Partnering with an experienced plaintiff’s attorney will make it easier to ensure that proper, thorough and independent investigations are conducted and that evidence is presented in the best way to support the employee’s claims for compensation.

On a final note, FELA claims are subject to a 3-year statute of limitations. The clock starts ticking on the date of a worksite accident or on the day on which the presence of an occupational illness becomes obvious. So, while hiring a FELA attorney is not a priority, it is also a task that cannot be put off indefinitely.