As the saying goes, knowledge is power. Here’s an amazing new law that every rail worker should know about. The Federal Railroad Safety Act (FRSA), 29 U.S.C. Section 20109, hands employees a shield and a sword to fight back against rail managers who heretofore have retaliated against workers with impunity.

The FRSA prohibits retaliation whenever employees engage in certain "protected activity." For example, when a worker reports an on-the-job injury or occupational illness, the railroad is now prohibited from discrimination or retaliating in any way against that worker. Now, if an employee reports his own or a co-workers on-the-job injury and then his railroad disciplines, reprimands, fires, lays off, demotes, intimidates, denies promotion or benefits, or in any other way retaliates against that employee, the employee can file a complaint with OSHA that ultimately can lead to a federal court jury award making the employee whole and awarding punitive damages of up to $250,000.

This is the first time that rail workers have had the potential to win punitive damages against their employer railroad. Punitive damages are designed to "send a message" to a defendants by punishing them for a pattern of unaccepatable conduct. When a railroad retaliates against employees who report injuries on a system-wide basis, this new FRSA law allows juries to impose punitive damages that will discourage the railroad from continuing its course of retaliatory conduct.

There is a very short window of days within which employees can file their initial OSHA complaint: 180 days from the time the railroad indicates a desire or intent to discipline the employee. For example, this means 180 days from the date a railroad notifies a worker that it will be conducting a disciplinary hearing or trial. Failure to file the OSHA complaint within that 180 days is fatal to the worker’s claim.

When an employee invokes this new law, it is as if he dons a suit of armor against any future retaliation. It protects him against any future attempt by his railroad supervisors or managers to get back at him for filing the complaint. And his co-workers who talk to OSHA about the complaint also gain the same suit of armor protecting them from such future retaliation. This is true even if the original OSHA complaint does not result in any formal action against the railroad. It is true even if the worker’s injury does not qualify as a FELA injury. So this really is a game changing law that helps level the playing field for rail workers, and every employee should be familiar with it.