Why the FELA is so Important

By Ronald Barczak , Senior Partner at YJB

Prior to the passage of the FELA, the average life expectancy of a railroad worker was just seven years. The railroad robber barons of old felt railroad workers were expendable. If the truth be known, the new profit gouging, greedy corporations think the same thing today. And if you don’t believe it, then how do you explain that in 1995, just five years before the dawn of the new century and over twenty-five years after we put a man on the moon, railroads are still allowing mile-long trains to collide in the middle of the night, killing and maiming their employees?

And how do you explain that railroads, after refusing to invest money in “positive train separation” research and technology, turn around and sue the widows and families of the men they have killed in the very collisions which they could have prevented had they been willing to spend some of their enormous profits on safety? It is no different today than it was when Congress first decided the FELA was needed. It is the FELA that stands between them and us. It is the FELA demanding railroad responsibility and forcing railroad safety. That is why this great law is so important. It forces railroad safety and responsibility.

The FELA holds railroads accountable. It’s the FELA that mandates automatic couplers that must couple without the need of workers going between cars and must remain coupled unless purposely uncoupled.

It is the FELA that:

  • Requires grab irons and hand holds that must be safe and secure, not bent, broken, or in disrepair
  • Forces hand brakes to function properly so as to avoid injury
  • States that all appurtenances of an engine must be safe and secure so as to avoid threat to life and/or limb
  • Requires that engine seats must be fastened safely and securely
  • Insists that engine brakes and train brakes must function as designed
  • Requires that engine floors and walkways must be free of oil, grease, water, and other debris.

It’s the FELA that forces railroads to accept responsibility to provide switches that do not “hang up” and other equipment that functions properly and does not malfunction upon use, and to provide walking paths that are level, clean and well maintained.

It is the FELA that demands railroads provide you with a reasonable, safe place to work and, yes, it also forces you to work safely as well. And isn’t that only fair, in America, to hold people and corporations responsible for their actions? The FELA is quintessentially American. It is based on the deep-seated belief in America that individuals and corporations should be held responsible for their own behavior.

But today the railroads are attempting to repeal the FELA. They say it is antiquated and outdated! But what is outdated about a law that holds the railroad responsible for its behavior and only allows recovery when the railroad fails to meet their responsibility?

They claim it is “unnecessary”! But how can it be unnecessary when people are still getting hurt, collisions are still occurring and children are still losing their parents?

The railroads say that reportable injuries are down and that it is safer out there than it ever has been. I say if it is truly safer out there, then let’s sing the praises of the FELA for forcing the railroads to:

  • Remove the asbestos from brake linings and pipe coverings
  • Redesign switch handles at an angle that may be easier on the back
  • Change the location of the whistle and stop the venting of the air brakes directly into the cab.

Think about it! Years ago, the railroads knew they were consistently and constantly stealing your God-given precious sense of hearing, and yet the railroad did nothing until the FELA forced changes upon them.

If it is truly safer out there, then keep the FELA on guard so that railroads do not slip back and so they are forced to spend some of their precious profits on positive train separation technology, on cab design, on hydraulic seats, crash-worthiness, fatigue and performance research, and countless other safety measures that are only induced by a law that holds the railroad responsible for its behavior.

But, you know, I don’t believe it is safer out there! The railroads say reportable injuries are down 80-85%. But the operative word is “reportable”. The actual number of injuries are not down anywhere near that percentage. How many of your members working out there are afraid to fill out personal injury reports because they might be investigated? How many of your fellow workers out there are working hurt because they don’t want to be “MIRPED” or “Upgraded” or labeled as accident prone? How many people each day get hurt and have to think twice about filling out a personal injury report for fear of losing their jobs?

What kind of employer creates an atmosphere of intimidation around the filling out of a personal injury report (when their own rules say you have to fill one out) then brags to Congress that “reportable” injuries are down? I’ll tell you what kind of employer! It is an employer that constantly and diligently must be held accountable and responsible for its behavior. And it is the FELA that has done it historically and needs to continue to do that into the future. That’s why the FELA is so important – it demands responsibility and it fosters and encourages safety.

The FELA lawyers of Yaeger & Jungbauer Barristers, PLC invite you to contact their office for further discussion of this topic. This article is designed for general information only and should be considered neither formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer client relationship.