Virginia FELA Railroad Lawyers Challenge Norfolk Southern Safety Award | Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp

Every year for the past 18 years the owners of the U.S. Railroads congratulate Norfolk Southern Corporation for injuring, maiming, and killing less of its employees than the other major freight carriers. Having done FELA injury cases against Norfolk Southern for all of those 18 years and being a rail union designated legal counsel, I find this self congratulation by the major railroads almost funny. Like being the best smelling pig at the trough. According to published reports Norfolk Southern had about 1 injury to employees for every 200,000 hours worked. CSX railroad employees were hurt about 40% more and the major railroads on the west coast also caused their employees to be injured 40-80% more than Norfolk Southern.

However, Norfolk Southern gets this award based only on statistics compiled by the Federal Railroad Administration. The only injuries that get reported to the FRA are those where an employee reports that they get hurt during their railroad work and receives medical care which involves time missed from work or prescription drugs. The railroads go to great lengths to keep the number of reportable FRA injuries to a minimum. How do they do this? They do it by intimidating workers not to report injuries. I am aware of situations where railroad supervisors will refuse to accept an injury report from an injured worker on the job. Although, the FRA theoretically investigates such abuses by the railroads there are very few teeth in their enforcement.

Another ploy of the railroads to keep down their reportable injuries is to give the worker light duty for a day or two hoping that they might just brush it off and not seek medical care. The major railroad carriers like CSX and Norfolk Southern require the worker to go with his supervisor anytime an injured railroader needs to go the emergency room. Unless the railroad worker is smart enough about his rights to demand to speak to the doctor alone the supervisor may well tell the doctor please don’t give this man any prescription medication or we will have to write up a report. If a railroad worker insists on his rights, that he has been hurt, that he wants to fill out an incident report, and that he needs to go to the emergency room, then the railroad has other methods of retribution. One common avenue is for the railroad to call a “company investigation” which is a kangaroo court where the injured worker doesn’t have a right to an attorney.

The company calls witnesses and tries to say that the railroad worker did something wrong causing his own injury or failed to report it in a timely fashion. Then they punish the worker by suspending or firing the person. If the railroad worker is new and in a probationary status they may fire him simply for getting hurt because there is no protection for those workers to prevent that. CSX in recent years has even gone to a policy of identifying “high profile” workers who they want supervisors to watch like hawks. What they are trying to do is to intimidate a worker who has made an injury claim by having his every move at the job site followed to look for minor infractions in company rules.

So when I hear that Norfolk Southern has once again won the “rail industry top honor for employee safety, the gold E.H. Harriman Memorial Safety Award,” I have to laugh to keep from crying. As a long time FELA railroad injury lawyer who has represented many injured railroad men over the decades, I know what hogwash such awards are. If the railroad environment is safer today than it was before, it’s due to the hard work and efforts railroad men and rail unions forcing the railroad to make safety improvements. Perhaps some other decreased in employee injuries is a result of the railroad getting rid of workers and having smaller crews using questionable technology like remote control units to operate trains. But when the industry pats itself on the back about its safety record, I know from experience that statistics can be manipulated in a self serving way by the railroads especially as it relates to FRA reportable injuries.

The same day that the Virginian Pilot newspaper, in Norfolk, Virginia (VA) was reporting about this absurd safety award, May 18, 2007, it was also reporting in the same business section that Norfolk Southern shares were rising because of buy out rumors. The company supervisors and company executives get monetary benefit in the form of raises, bonuses, and improved stock prices when they can claim fewer injuries, whether it’s true or not.