December 3, 2010

CHICAGO (Dec. 2)—The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has told the UTU’s national legislative director in Washington that it plans to fine the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis (TRRA) for failure to inform the FRA about a reportable injury, under-reporting the number of days lost by an injured employee, and failing to maintain complete and timely records of injuries to three other employees.

In a letter to National Legislative Director James Stem, FRA Chief Safety Officer Jo Strang said her staff recommended to the agency’s chief legal counsel that TRRA be fined for the offenses.

Strang said TRRA was found to be in violation of Section 225.11 of Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in two cases—failure to report a March 18, 2009, injury sustained by employee Kristopher Cook; and failure to report the number of work days missed by Jeremy McFarland after an injury sustained Sept. 9, 2009.

“TRRA reported that he had 5 days away from work, and our investigation determined that he was off work for 39 days,” Strang wrote.

Strang said FRA also found three workplace-injury cases in which TRRA failed to comply with 49 CFR Paragraph 225.33 (a) (1), which requires “complete and accurate reporting of all accidents, injuries and occupational illnesses.”

FRA investigators found TRRA had kept incomplete records or had failed to report injuries suffered by Brad Stater on December 12, 2006; Daniel Hudzik on December 8, 2008; and Brian Carlson on December 11, 2008.

“These latest findings from the FRA confirm a disturbing trend that began to emerge more than a year ago,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “They suggest a deteriorating safety atmosphere at the TRRA. The railroad has now been cited for safety violations four times within a year, including this latest citation for five separate violations.”

Guy noted that as recently as last June the TRRA was cited by the safety agency for holding an employee for drug and alcohol testing after a low-speed, one-axle switching derailment that resulted in no damage.

“That incident has seemingly become the norm,” Guy said. “Our members feel that TRRA’s safety attitude swings two ways: There is an excessive focus on minor incidents along with an effort to hinder the reporting of more serious incidents that might result in injury. Management exploits the minor incidents for their employee-discipline potential while suppressing more serious ones in order to manage costs.”

Guy said TRRA may also be massaging its injury statistics in order to enhance its reputation.

“From 1998 through 2008, TRRA won the E.H. Harriman Memorial Medal Safety Award in the Switching & Terminal category in every year except 2006,” he said. “Last year they did not. You have to wonder whether the recent under-reporting of injuries might have been part of a strategy to attempt to get the medal back.”

Guy advised TRRA employees to stay alert for safety hazards and to report to the local immediately any effort by TRRA management to subvert the operating rules or FRA-mandated safety practices.

“The key is to report what you see to your local and let the Illinois Legislative Board follow up with the appropriate enforcement agencies,” Guy said. “Do not be insubordinate or refuse to carry out orders.

“Once you have carried out your orders, however, do your best to remember the time, date and location of any unsafe practices that you witnessed or participated in, and be sure to provide the local with the name of the supervisor who directed you to work in an unsafe manner or permitted a violation of the federal reporting laws. The union will take it from there, and as the FRA’s latest letter proves, when our members act, the union gets results.

“There is a problem with the safety culture at the TRRA, but we have the tools to deal with it,” Guy said: “Member activism plus union professionalism will get the job done.”

But Guy said federal enforcement, while effective, is not the final answer to careless railroad management. The only enduring solution, he said, is a “bottom-up” collaboration between employees and management of the type that once existed between the TRRA and its employees represented by the UTU.

“In the light of these latest findings by the FRA, it is my sincere hope that the TRRA and the UTU can move forward to repair an environment on the property that has damaged a once-productive labor-management working relationship,” Guy said. “I would welcome any outreach from TRRA management that would enable us to sit down together–along with the FRA–to determine the best path forward on how to repair this fractured relationship.”

Guy said the UTU prides itself on being able to protect its members’ health and well-being through the regulatory process, but ultimately the union’s effectiveness is measured by its ability to work one-on-one with the carriers without “bringing in the heat.”

“We would much rather handle issues quietly, at a local level, than to have to continually bring in state or federal officials to address more formal complaints,” he said.

“Here’s hoping that we can accomplish that on this specific property.”