Over the years I regularly speak to groups of railroaders about my work as a FELA lawyer. Over the recent years I hear lots of stories from railroad workers in states like Virginia (VA), North Carolina (NC), South Carolina (SC), Maryland (MD), West Virginia (WV), Tennessee (TN), Georgia (GA), and Florida (FL) about intimidation by the major railroad companies to prevent railroad workers from making FELA claims.
When we, as FELA lawyers, hear these stories of intimidation by Norfolk Southern and CSX to prevent people from enforcing their right to file a FELA lawsuit when hurt on the job during railroad work, it makes us so angrey. Whether the pressure on workers not to make a claim is from a conductor in Ohio (OH), or maintenance of way worker in Alabama (AL), the impact is always the same. The major railroads scare employees especially younger railroad workers, to not tell anyone when they are hurt on the job. They encourage the injured railroad worker not to make a FELA claim so that the supervisors and the railroad will be able to claim fewer on the job injuries and make more money or bonuses. It’s always the worker who looses through this intimidation.
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We try to educate workers that the federal law called FELA (Federal Employer’s Liability Act) protects them from retribution for making a FELA claim. We pass out our blue books telling about FELA rights, so that workers can learn what to do if they get hurt on the job and what their rights are. The problem, is however much we explain workers’ rights at union meetings or when talking to railroad workers, the intimidation from the company officers and supervisors may feel more real especially to a younger railroader who doesn’t know the ropes yet.
In fact the railroad hopes to get the injured worker into a trap through the intimidation. If you don’t report your injury right away they make it even worse for you, if you have to come back later and report the injury. If you come back days or weeks later to report that you goy hurt, then they may try to find you guilty of a rule violation for failing to report the injury. Thus, the best course of action for a railroad worker who gets hurt on the job is to let the company know right then and there what happened. However, it takes a certain amount of strength of character to report an injury even when the supervisors are telling the railroad worker either expressly or by implication that the company would rather the worker didn’t get any medical treatment. At a minimum, if you think you got hurt on the job, make sure to tell a co-worker what happened as soon as possible, so that you have some evidence in a later FELA case that the incident really did occur as you said. Really as there are fewer senior railroad workers out there to train the younger workers, the major railroads have become more dangerous.
Additionally, changes in the work conditions for freights carriers like remote control devices also add new dangers to railroad work. I can only hope that in part through education we FELA lawyers are able to show the younger railroad workers that they need to stand up for their rights as was intended under the FELA law, rather than to simply suffer silently when injured on the job just because that is better for the company. Given all of the propaganda put out by CSX and Norfolk Southern to stop people making FRA reportable injury claims on the job, this continuing education by FELA lawyers is an uphill battle.