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Shapiro, Lewis, Appleton & Favaloro
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Are the Nation's Railroads Really Safer, Or Are Many Injuries Going Unreported?

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Norfolk Southern Railway Company and other major Railroads are always patting themselves on the back about their safety records. The railroad industry has historically been one of the most dangerous occupations in America. As a result of the dangers, a separate federal law covers railroad workers who get hurt on the job called the Federal Employers’ Liability Act (F.E.L.A.). When a railroad worker gets injured on the job, they have a claim under this federal law, rather than the normal workers’ compensation that other workers get. Because injured workers earn a good living and their injuries are often catastrophic, this type of injury claim is a high stakes area of practice, especially if no wages are being earned due to the injury.

One irony is that the railroads improve their safety record by intimidating workers to not report injuries. Rather than concentrating on making the railroads safer, the major freight carriers spend a lot of energy scarring the workers into not telling anyone or scarring workers about filing injury reports when they get hurt on the job. As long as the injury doesn’t result in lost wages or a prescription drug, then the railroads usually do not have to report it to the Federal Railroad Administration. So supervisors and company agents use bullying tactics to get a worker not to go to the hospital and to keep working injured, or to allow the worker to “hang around” (and get paid) in exchange for not filing a report. Often, younger workers are most susceptible to this pressure, because they do not realize that they have certain rights and may fail to perceive the risk that they put themselves and their families at by continuing to work, even though they are hurt.

Another effect of the railroads keeping down the reporting of injuries is the rise of cumulative trauma injuries in railroad work. Now, many workers find that over time their musculoskeletal system, for example their back, is worn out through the repetitive heavy work on the railroad. These workers are not able to point to one particular event where they hurt themselves, but it is clear to them and their doctors that they have suffered repetitive trauma over time by their physical exertions on the job, such as walking on big ballast rock, being exposed to vibration on equipment and repeated heavy lifting. These cumulative trauma injuries, which include carpal tunnel injuries, knee and hip injuries, and back/neck injuries, have become commonplace on the railroad. Again, many workers are intimidated about filing any injury report relating to “repetitive injuries” also, so even further problems arise if the worker is forced to have surgery, where a report was not filed at any earlier time. The railroad is still one of the most dangerous places to work in America, and workers need to consult with knowledgable lawyers when questions arise.