June 13, 2003

CHICAGO (June 13)–Acting on documentation provided by an alert UTU Local Legislative Representative, the Federal Railroad Administration has found the Indiana Harbor Belt Railroad (IHB) in multiple violation of federal statutes after the carrier asked an employee’s doctor to downgrade the severity of a workplace injury in order to help the railroad polish its safety record.

It was the second time in a little over a year that an Illinois Legislative Board Complaint has led to an FRA citation against the IHB for under-reporting employee injuries. During that period, the FRA has confirmed seven such Illinois Legislative Board complaints against a total of four railroads, citing Canadian National/Illinois Central, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and the Belt Railway of Chicago in addition to the IHB.

In May, 2002, the agency found that IHB managers pressured an employee to restate an absence as a “personal day” rather than “off injured”(See “Hot Topics” Archives for May 31, 2002, “FRA cites IHB and BRC for inury reporting/intimidation violations”). In addition, FRA accused the IHB of committing “reprehensible behavior” for later bringing disciplinary charges against the employee who brought the complaint.

But in its most recent finding, the FRA didn’t just vindicate the union’s claim that IHB failed to report a workplace injury. After investigating the UTU’s allegation, the agency went back into more than a year’s worth of records and ended up citing the railroad for multiple failures to report employee injuries.

“The FRA really kicked open the anthill this time,” said Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “All kinds of bugs came crawling out. UTU has believed for some time now that the IHB has been intimidating its employees, interfering with the doctor-patient relationship, and reducing the severity of the injury to make it appear ‘non-reportable.’”

That’s going to cost the railroad money. In a June 2 letter to Szabo, FRA Regional Administrator Laurence H. Hasvold said his office had forwarded its most recent investigation report to the FRA Chief Counsel in Washington “with a recommendation for the assessment of civil penalties [i.e., a fine] against IHB” for violating Part 225 of Chapter 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

“Historically, the FRA has fined carriers between $2,500 and $5,000 for each such incident,” Szabo said. “Obviously, the finding of multiple instances of under-reporting should substantiallly raise that total.”

The incident that apparently set off the FRA’s discovery of multiple under-reporting at the IHB occurred late last fall when an employee was stung by a bee while working in the carrier’s Blue Island Yard in Riverdale.

A physician treated the employee’s sting with an injection. However, the employee later received a phone call in which the physician suggested that the diagnosis be changed to make it appear the employee had been treated for a flare-up of an earlier condition unrelated to his railroad work.

“We’ll show the shot was for your knee or something, since the IHB has such a good safety record,” the doctor allegedly said.

The railroad’s apparent effort to conceal the employee’s workplace injury caught the attention of Brother D.L. Kortum, an IHB employee who serves as Legislative Representative for Local #1883 as well as Secretary of the Illinois Legislative Board.

Kortum interviewed the injured employee and forwarded the details of his experience to Szabo for preparation of a formal Complaint to the FRA. Szabo submitted the Complaint to the FRA March 31.

On June 2, the FRA’s Hasvold wrote Szabo that his agency not only had found the UTU’s complaint about the bee-string incident valid but had searched the records and uncovered multiple instances in which the IHB had manipulated employee injury statistics during the previous calendar year.

“FRA determined that a significant number of non-reportable injuries for 2002 were, in fact, reportable under the current requirements established in 49 C.F.R. Part 225,” Hasvold wrote. “Additionally, the IHB was informed that the questionable practice of determining reportability of the accident by the railroad would cease and desist immediately.”

“This finding by the FRA confirms what we at the UTU have believed for some time,” Szabo said: “There is a culture of concealment in effect at the IHB. Information about employee injuries is withheld from the FRA in order to reduce the company’s perceived accident rate. It’s not just one incident; it’s an ongoing pattern of harassment and intimidation of employees as well as interference with the doctor-patient relationship.”

Szabo said the “unearthing of a bevy of under-reporting violations” against the IHB was a perfect example of what can happen when union members are willing to step forward and allow their union to take action.

“Dan Kortum has believed for more than a year that a pattern of deception was being pursued by the IHB,” Szabo said. “Several members had the courage to step forward, trust Dan and trust the union to bring them results. The initiative showed by the members, plus the follow-up carried out by their union representatives, enabled the FRA to open an investigation which uncovered violations much more far-reaching than each of the individual employees had suspected.”

Szabo urged all rail employees to participate in the process by coming forward and sharing with the union any pressure they feel from railroad management to change an injury report or to interfere with medical care related to a workplace injury.

“Nobody has the right to alter a physician’s diagnosis or pressure an employee to reduce or drop a claim,” Szabo said. “Railroad that try it are violating federal law. When we report them, we make them pay, and when we make them pay, we make them stop.”