Testing to make sure a train’s brakes work properly shouldn’t be controversial. But some railroad employees have lost their jobs because they insisted on the safety checks. Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Tony Schick explains the situation in “Rail workers raise doubts about safety culture as oil trains roll on.”
Schick profiles the experience of Curtis Rookaird, a BNSF train conductor. Rookaird was fired in 2010 after he raised safety complaints, including about the need to conduct air brake testing on a set of railcars. OSHA investigated Rookaird’s whistleblower complaint. The agency agreed that BNSF retaliated against the worker for raising safety concerns. OSHA ordered the company to reinstate Rookaird, but BNSF appealed and the case continues. Rookaird’s not alone. Schick notes:
“Cases are pending in at least three different states in which BNSF conductors allege they were fired for insisting mandatory brake tests not be skipped, contrary to orders from their managers.”
BNSF is the second largest freight railway system in North America. Berkshire Hathway’s Warren Buffett bought the firm in 2010 for $44 billion. It’s an integral part of the oil and gas boom, transporting millions of gallons of crude to refineries.
We foster a culture that makes safety our highest priority and provides continuous self-examination as to the effectiveness of our safety process and performance.
We empower our work force to take responsibility for personal safety, the safety of fellow employees and the communities we serve.
“Former employees in Montana and Minnesota have also alleged under a federal whistleblower statute that they were fired after raising concerns about air brake tests. ‘Where the dispatcher is telling a crew to get the train out of there even when the air brake test hasn’t been performed, that to me is a clear example of putting profits ahead of safety,’ said George Gavalla, who oversaw safety at the FRA until 2004 and now works as a consultant and expert witness.”
“Other engineers and conductors with BNSF in the Northwest recalled similar pressure to prioritize train movement. In interviews they cited hurried or forgone brake tests, the ignoring of requirements to put cars in a particular order, and instances of riding out of the yard for miles at a time clutching the ladder on the outside of a rail car because of the extra time it would take to walk thousands of feet back to the front of the train. “
The whistleblowers on Buffett’s railroad also include workers who have been threatened or retaliated against for reporting a work-related injury. Schick notes that about 60 percent of the safety whistleblower cases involving railroad employees fall into this category. One group of workers testified that their BNSF supervisor said:
“If any member were to report an injury, the entire gang would be abolished, regardless of any other circumstances.”
“We foster a culture that makes safety our highest priority.”
Schick links to dozens of depositions and other documents in his story to let us judge BNSF’s safety culture for ourselves.