July 9, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 2Comment

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.

BNSF insists:

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.

Schick writes:

“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.”

BNSF says:

“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.


2 thoughts on “Safety whistleblowers on Warren Buffett’s railroad

  1. There is a reason that “train wreck” and “runaway train” are synonoms for horrific, unstoppable disasters. Does this happen in the rail industry because only a tiny fraction of rail traffic involves passengers, or does the airline industry cut corners like this too?

  2. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Gavalla when he seems to imply a Train Dispatcher would order a train crew to occupy a Main Track without an air test, whether Initial Terminal or Road( not specified). Train Dispatchers do not do that, as a cardinal rule, and the T&E crew would not accept such an instruction. Train Dispatchers want the train to leave on schedule, and may very well request of the crew to get on the move. This does not mean “move” in violation of any Operating Rule, Timetable Special Instruction, Bulletin Order or Air Brake Rule(s). It means they are looking at their traffic and anticipating the slotting in of trains on, and entering, their respective territory. I believe a good analogy would be an airport Ground Controller looking to get a heavy to push back out of the gate, and get to tarmac. When the GC requests the Pilot(s) get moving, he/she is looking for fluidity, and would never instruct the Pilots to forego their pre-flight check. That’s not the Ground Controller’s responsibility. The other allegations that BNSF Conductors were relieved of their duties account doing their jobs properly, by making the required
    AB test(s) and then being taken out of service, does not make sense to me. Not saying it could not happen, but it would be extremely rare for a RR Manager to order a crew out of a Terminal without the required AB test(s). That action would be grounds for dismissal, IMO. Of course, all Railroads run on failsafes, and as far as I can see no train left the Terminal, absent the required AB tests.The crew did not fail, despite being taken out of service.
    “Safety is of first importance” means everything on any railroad. Logically, it can be no other way, for either employees or the railroad.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.