Rail whistleblowers fired for voicing safety concerns despite efforts to end practice of retaliation

Just hours before a Norfolk Southern train derailed and a fire broke out in Ohio in February, a judge ruled a former railroad worker could file a lawsuit alleging he had been harassed for years by managers who said he had too many reported defects in the railroad cars he inspected and inspected had changed jobs after reporting an injury.

Richard Singleton’s case against Norfolk Southern was settled for an undisclosed amount after the judge said he had enough evidence to go to court over whether he was disciplined for reporting safety violations that slowed trains passing through a train depot in Macon, Georgia.

The settlement brought relief to Singleton, but does little for residents near East Palestine, Ohio, who are concerned about possible health effects from the accident’s poison fire. This and other derailments have since sparked nationwide railroad safety concerns.

Lawyers and unions representing railroad workers say there is an industry-wide pattern of retaliation against workers like Singleton who report safety violations or injuries. They claim that workers often run afoul of managers who don’t want their bonuses jeopardized, and that retaliation discourages other workers from speaking up.

Since the Ohio derailment on February 3, railroad safety has been the focus, and Congress and regulators have proposed reforms. But little has changed except that railroads have promised to install 1,000 more track detectors to detect mechanical problems and reevaluate their responses to the alarms from those devices.

“Ever since Wall Street took over, the railroads have put productivity ahead of safety,” attorney Nick Thompson argued earlier this year on behalf of a fired engineer. He cited recent derailments in Ohio and Raymond, Minnesota. “People are being killed, cities evacuated, rivers poisoned, all in the name of profit.”

Railroads are working to discourage such practices by prohibiting retaliation and providing a myriad of ways for workers who fear retaliation to report safety concerns, either directly to a manager or anonymously through an internal hotline.

Statistics from the Occupational Health and Safety Administration show that the number of whistleblower complaints filed against major railroad companies in one year fell from 218 in 2018 to 96 last year.

“I have zero tolerance for retaliation. And I made that very clear. And indeed, the culture that we are creating at Norfolk Southern is a culture of transparency and a culture where people are encouraged to put their hand up and say they have a problem,” said CEO Alan Shaw.

Other major railroads, including BNSF, Union Pacific, CPKC, Canadian National and CSX, confirmed this view in statements and said they encourage employees to report safety concerns.

Whistleblower cases make up a small proportion of the country’s more than 100,000 employees. But even a handful of cases can create anxiety among employees and have a chilling effect on safety reporting.

Long before Mike Ratigan was fired from CSX in New York last year after refusing to help bypass state safety standards or ignore railcar deficiencies, he said he had seen other workers sanctioned. These disciplinary cases became a “deer’s head” for managers: a trophy that sent a clear message.

“It says if we can do it to him, we can do it to you,” Ratigan said.

According to OSHA, 793 whistleblower complaints were filed between 2018 and the end of July, with Norfolk Southern topping all railroads with 257. Union Pacific and CSX were not far behind with nearly 200 complaints each, while another 113 were reported to the BNSF. The numbers are much lower for Canadian railways, partly because much of their operations are north of the border.

More than half of the complaints were dismissed after reviews by OSHA. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, because some dismissed cases become federal lawsuits that can result in multimillion-dollar judgments against railroads. OSHA’s decisions are also subject to appeal. 87 cases were settled before OSHA decided whether they were merited.

The Associated Press reviewed dozens of whistleblower cases and found a similar pattern. When they weren’t bound by confidential settlement agreements, former railroad workers argued that managers didn’t want them to report too many safety violations because they would slow trains. A few ex-employees prevailed in court, but all had to face uphill battles against huge corporations with billions in profits a year and legions of lawyers.

Mike Elliott was fired in 2011 after reporting safety concerns to the Federal Railroad Administration after other workers reported him to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen union in his capacity as Washington state’s chief safety officer. The FRA responded with a special inspection that found 357 deficiencies, angering their BNSF chiefs.

One of his managers confronted Elliott in the parking lot, jumping onto the hood of his car and claiming that Elliott hit him and tried to run him over. Elliott said he was acquitted of those charges at a criminal trial but was ultimately released.

That began a year-long court battle that included countless motions and a six-day trial before a jury awarded him $1.25 million and $500,000 in attorneys’ fees. After an appeal to the 9th Circuit, the railroad finally paid him in 2018.

“It’s a never-ending fight. You have the best lawyers. They have the best lobbyists and they have a lot of lobbyists. You’ve got a lot of money and you’re struggling with it.” Elliott said.

Dale Gourneau had a reputation as a “stubborn safety advocate” who may have written more “poor order” signs with defects on railcars than anyone else at the Mandan, North Dakota, railroad yard, where he worked for 18 years.

Gourneau urged his supervisors to stop preventing employees from claiming BNSF bonuses for the company for finding broken railroad car wheels. Not long after, he was charged with failing to properly stop his 2019 ATV before crossing the tracks. He was fired a few months later after the company claimed he broke the same rule a second time, although he claimed to have followed the rules It is customary to stop a few feet from the tracks to avoid another set of tracks.

An administrative judge ruled this spring that the disciplinary sanction Gourneau received was merely a pretext conjured up by his managers to fire him. The judge ordered the BNSF to reinstate Gourneau and pay him $578,659 in back payments and penalties.

The BNSF is appealing and has declined to comment on specific cases.

Things got so bad for railroad car inspector John Fulk that in 2011 he shot himself in the head in the parking lot of his job at a railroad yard in North Carolina, Norfolk Southern. His widow successfully argued in court that rather than face a disciplinary hearing and possible dismissal on fabricated charges of attempted sabotage of a train’s braking system, Fulk killed himself after being berated by managers for stopping too many carriages for repairs place.

Fulk’s case was able to continue because he had initiated the complaints process with the supervisory authorities before his death. FRA investigators found numerous rule violations and his former colleagues told them that Fulk had been repeatedly targeted by managers. However, court records show that none of them wanted to sign witness statements for fear of retribution. Norfolk Southern settled in 2015.

“As a result of his compliance with FRA regulations, Mr. Fulk has been subjected to abusive intimidation, disciplinary threats and job threats from Norfolk Southern management,” US District Judge William Osteen wrote. “Although he has reported these acts and omissions, Norfolk Southern has never taken any action to stop this treatment.”

Russell Falcon

Russell Falcon is a USTimesPost U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Russell Falcon joined USTimesPost in 2023 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing russellfalcon@ustimespost.com.

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