In the 19th centuries, railroad magnates amassed enormous amounts of wealth and power as the industrial revolution took off in America. Throughout the last century, the railroad industry has seen its fair share of hard times and turmoil, but the overwhelming corporate power has endured. According to present day railroad workers and their lawyers, railroad companies have a long history of retaliating against railway employees who are injured on the job or who complain about safety hazards. After all, injury investigations often shine a bright light on safety hazards in the workplace, and many railroad corporations seem all too eager to keep that bit of news in the dark.
The railroad industry and many other large industries have adopted a concept of “behavior-based safety”. This means that all accidents and injuries are assumed to be avoidable; if they occur, then they must be the fault of the worker and not the corporation. This gives them an easier way to deny workers’ compensation and other benefits, while also giving them justification for firing that employee, thus ridding the company of the responsibility of dealing with an injured worker.
This creates a working environment where workers are far less likely to report injuries for fear of discipline action or losing their jobs. In turn, this fear keeps railway injury numbers low, which serves the employers who are mandated to pass this information along to the Federal Railroad Administration.
“They want those numbers to be low,” says Kaminkow. “[So] in effect they are intimidating the rest of the workforce. Every time they fire Joe Blow who got hurt getting off an engine, people think, ‘Oh my god if I ever get hurt I better just limp home, lick my wounds, go to a hospital, just don’t report it.’ ”
–Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of the Railroad Workers United
Yet all of this may be changing, thanks in large part to 2007 legislation protecting railroad whistleblowers. This legislation has been strongly supported by federal rulings and policy changes in OSHA. Anthony Araujo’s case is a prime example of the changes that have begun to occur and the hope that is now offered to railroad whistleblowers.
Anthony Araujo: Railroad Whistleblower
In February 2008, Araujo witnessed something horrific: a construction worker was fatally electrocuted in front of his eyes. This traumatic event caused Araujo to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and he requested time off from work. The New Jersey Transit Rail Operations immediately charged Araujo with violating the company’s electrical rules and they then ceased paying his wages. As a result, Araujo fell into serious debt. Araujo felt that he was blamed for what he saw and for what he described during the investigation as safety hazards and problems within the company.
Araujo filed a complaint against the New Jersey Transit with OSHA’s new whistleblower protection office. OSHA agreed with Araujo and awarded him more than a half million dollars for his lost wages and suffering. New Jersey Transit immediately appealed OSHA’s decision, but Araujo had protection from the 2007 FRSA, which stated specifically that railroad companies may not “discharge, demote, suspend, reprimand, or in any other way discriminate against an employee for protected activities, including reporting safety hazards or a workplace injury or illness.”
Since the 2007 FRSA, whistleblower complaints have risen steadily and the number of settlements has increased. Yet despite the hope offered by the 2007 FRSA and Araujo’s recent court rulings, railroad workers and worker’s compensation lawyers say that there are still major hurdles to workers feeling protected from retaliation when they report injuries or safety hazards.
A Washington Worker’s Compensation Lawyer on Your Side
If you have a question about worker’s compensation or have been unfairly treated after reporting a safety hazard, it is important to contact an experienced Seattle worker’s compensation lawyer immediately. At the Phillips Law Firm, our worker’s compensation attorneys have represented workers in Seattle, Bellevue, Everett, Tacoma, and throughout the State of Washington with their worker’s compensation questions and claims. Call us today at 1-800-708-6000 or visit us on the web.