Risky Business: Railroad Workers

13 Aug, 2018 Liz Carey


This is the next article in WorkersCompensation.com's “Risky Business” series, as we explore what is it like to be employed, and the employers, in the United States’ most dangerous workplaces. 

Ironton, OH (WorkersCompensation.com) – Once upon a time, being a railroad worker was one of the deadliest jobs in the country.

According to “Modern Marvels — Freight Trains,” between 1890 and 1917, more than 230,000 railroad workers died on the job. That’s the equivalent of more than 8,500 fatalities per year, or more than 23 railroad worker deaths per day.

In 2008, the number of railroad fatalities for the entire year was 24. 

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2003 and 2016, the number of fatalities for railroad workers on the job ranged from 16 in 2003, to 24 in 2008, to 11 in 2016. On average, half of those fatalities happened to conductors or yardmen.

The Railroad Workers Union website lists 14 railroad worker fatalities in the US in Canada for 2017. Among them:

Nicholas Vosejpka died on Dec. 30, 2017 when he was working as a foreman on the UPRR Hoffman Yard. Vosejpka collapsed while doing an air test in temperatures below zero. 

Two railroad workers were killed on June 17 during a train inspection. Jake LaFave, of Cumberland, MD and Stephen Wayne Deal, of Meyersdale, PA, a conductor and conductor trainee, were killed when they were hit by a passing train while inspecting their own train before departure.

A 48-year-old employee of a contracting company, Best Barricading, was killed on June 15, in Melliville, IN after he was hit while preparing for railroad maintenance.

Kevin Folleth, of Mason, MI, was struck and killed by a pickup truck while he was erecting barricades and signs in preparation for repair work on a Canadian National railroad crossing.

A Union Pacific Railroad employee died on Jan. 31 when he was killed in a switching accident. John Paul Schneider, 54, of Spokane Valley died of blunt force trauma to the head, trunk and lower extremities.

Two BNSF Railway employees were killed in Edgemont, SC when they were struck by a train. Richard Lessert, 35 of Black Hawk, SC and Douglas Schmitz, 58 of Custer, SD were "fatally injured while cleaning a switch ... on the Powder River Division," BNSF Railway said on its website.

While safety measures and working conditions have improved for railroad workers since 1917, many in the industry say conditions aren’t safe enough.

John Paul Wright, with the Railroad Workers Union, said that recent changes at major railroads has resulted in less safe work conditions at railroads, not more. In order to increase profits, he said, safety regulations have been rolled back, operational standards previously deemed unsafe were considered to be the new normal and untrained workers were expected to adhere to “old-school style railroading.”

“As much as the railroads would have us believe that safety is about slogans, programs, indoctrination, and “culture”, it is not,” Wright said. “Safety is about pinpointing and eliminating hazards and allocating the necessary resources to eliminate them because these hazards are what lie behind each and every injury, every fatality, and every train wreck.”

For him, making railroads safer for workers means railroad companies and corporations need to invest in safety.

“To solve the safety issues… the carrier must devote the adequate and necessary resources to ensure that every worker is properly equipped to do the job right every time,” he said. “That means the corporation provides for adequate training, proper qualifying time, humane work schedules, adequate time off, proper maintenance of equipment, regular meeting with employee representatives, addressing and ameliorating hazards as they are identified, and a commitment to a high quality of work life for each and every employee involved in safety sensitive functions.”

Railroad workers are covered not by workers’ compensation, but by the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), passed by Congress in 1908 to protect railroad workers who are disabled or injured on the job. The act gives workers fair and livable compensation for injuries once negligence on the part of the railroad is established.

But the act goes further than workers’ compensation. Through FELA, railroad workers can recover all the damages associated with a lawsuit including lost wages and benefits, medical expenses, payments for pain and suffering, as well as loss of enjoyment of life. 

But, officials warn, injured workers must be careful not to give companies any ammunition that the railroad worker himself may be negligent.

“If you have been injured on the job, there are important steps to take after an injury to protect your rights, ensure how effective your claim will be along with the types of damages you could be entitled to,” according to an email from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, who represent railroad employees as well. “Timing is essential in making sure that one’s rights and claim is protected. Often statements given to trained claims representatives working for the Carriers can unknowingly diminish or extinguish an employee’s claim.” 

But changes in the way railroad systems implement those rules has made qualifying for FELA increasingly difficult, said Joe Mulligan, a locomotive engineer and one of the organizers of the RWU.

“They’ve created a rule to prevent everything,” Mulligan told WorkersCompensation.com. “Everything that could possibly go wrong, they’ve pushed the responsibility of the employer back on to the victim. We’re concerned about how we can defend our workers’ rights against this culture of severe discipline and victim blaming. …They’re more concerned about their ROI, than they are about the rights and safety of the employees.”

  • AI artificial intelligence case management claims cms communication compensability compliance conferences courts covid crime do you know the rule dr. claire muselman exclusivity florida FMLA fraud glossary check Healthcare heat how the court ruled iowa judge david langham leadership medical medicare missouri NCCI new jersey new york ohio opioids osha Safety telehealth texas WDYT west virginia what do you think workers' comp 101 workers' recovery workers' compensation contact information Workplace Safety Workplace Violence

  • Read Also

    About The Author

    • Liz Carey

      Liz Carey has worked as a writer, reporter and editor for nearly 25 years. First, as an investigative reporter for Gannett and later as the Vice President of a local Chamber of Commerce, Carey has covered everything from local government to the statehouse to the aerospace industry. Her work as a reporter, as well as her work in the community, have led her to become an advocate for the working poor, as well as the small business owner.

    Read More

    Request a Demo

    To request a free demo of one of our products, please fill in this form. Our sales team will get back to you shortly.