May 31, 2002

CHICAGO (May 31)–Acting on complaints brought by the UTU’s Illinois Legislative Board, the Federal Railroad Administration has ruled that managers of the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad and Belt Railway of Chicago engaged in improper behavior, failed to follow federal regulations and attempted to use harassment and intimidation in an effort to hide on-duty workplace injuries.

Intimidating a railroad employee into misrepresenting a workplace injury is a violation of Part 225.33 of Chapter 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

The finding that IHB management violated federal law was disclosed May 28 in a letter from FRA Regional Administrator Laurence H. Hasvold to UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. The letter was a response to Szabo’s December 19, 2001, allegation that on December 2, IHB managers attempted to persuade an employee to change the explanation on his absence report from “injured” to “personal.”

“The [FRA] investigation revealed that the incident in question did occur to a large degree, as alleged,” Hasvold wrote. “FRA interviewed several management and labor employees and verified that the employee was coerced by management into changing his off-duty status from ‘Off injured’ to ‘Off personal.’ The manager admitted to FRA that his reason for doing so was to prevent an injury from being FRA ‘reportable.’

“For all intents and purposes this represents an effort to intimidate the employee into modifying his work history,” Hasvold wrote.

He noted, however, that technically the railroad did not violate 49 CFR Part 225.33 because it did permit the employee to file an injury report on the day of the injury. But Hasvold acknowledged that the carrier never filed the injury report with the FRA, which, he noted, was a violation of Part 225.11 of the same statute.

“As a result of this [FRA] investigation, a recommendation will be made to the FRA Office of Chief Counsel for a civil penalty assessment for the failure to report a lost time injury to FRA as required by regulations,” Hasvold wrote. A fine of $2,500-$5,000 is anticipated. In addition, FRA called the carrier’s actions “reprehensible” and indicated that IHB is worthy of additional scrutiny to ensure this type of unethical behavior is eradicated.

Also, in a May 21 letter to Szabo, Hasvold said the FRA had found the Belt Railway of Chicago had used intimidation and harassment on or about March 12, 2001, in an attempt to get one of its operating employees to withdraw his report of having been injured while on duty at the carrier’s Clearing Yard. As in the IHB incident, the FRA found that the intimidation had not succeeded and the report had been filed–but that the carrier then violated another provision of the federal code by denying the employee a review under its federally mandated Internal Control Plan.

“…the railroad failed to react to the employee’s request for an internal investigation and simply ignored his complaint, which is a violation of federal regulations,” Hasvold wrote. “Consequently, a recommendation for a civil penalty assessment will be made to the Office of Chief Counsel for failing to adequately conduct an investigation, document the findings, and report back to the complainant as required by regulation.”

Hasvold concluded his letter to Szabo by saying that, “Further investigation revealed BRC initially failed to report a good faith estimate of the additional number of lost/restricted days that may accrue for this injury. A recommendation for a civil penalty assessment will be made to FRA Office of Chief Counsel for this violation as well.”

“Sadly, too many carriers continue to be more concerned with manipulating numbers to create an impression of safety than with developing legitimate safety partnerships that actually improve safety,” Szabo said.

“I always find it interesting that while the carriers like to show numbers indicating that accidents and injuries are down, the number of fatalities in the workplace has remained steady,” he said. “Dead men cannot be intimidated into claiming they are alive, but injured people who fear for their jobs can be intimidated into claiming they feel fine. That discrepancy between the railroads’ stubborn fatality rate and their apparently flexible injury rate is the main reason labor puts so little credence in the Harriman Awards given annually by the AAR to the railroads with the lowest accident and injury rates.”

Sabo was quick to acknowledge that the BRC case was more than a year old and happened under a previous management.

“Two years ago UTU considered the BRC one of its most troubled properties,” he said. “Frankly, we were concerned that this carrier had been maintaining an environment in which employees felt their jobs might be at risk if they reported an on-duty injury.

“However, since the arrival of George LaValley as General Manager there has been a direct turnaround in attitude at the BRC,” Szabo said. He noted that while LaValley is viewed as a stickler for safety, “he defines safety in real terms, as employees going home injury-free, rather than in terms of rigged statistics that portray accidents and injuries as never having happened.

“George understands the right way to do it and has openly embraced labor and FRA as partners,” Szabo concluded.

“There are two lessons to be learned from these episodes,” Szabo said: “Railroad employees can defend themselves against management intimidation–but only if they stand tall and work with their union to make sure a well documented complaint successfully passes through all of the formal steps in the FRA’s complaint-and-review process.

“Just grumbling doesn’t do any good,” Szabo said. “We can bring about change, but only if we have the courage to proceed with the FRA process. We know from experience that some railroad managers will not hesitate to use intimidation in order to ‘clean up’ their accident statistics and present a rosy safety picture to the federal authorities. But we also know we have a process to stop those tactics, and the process works if we have the courage to follow through.”