In response to last summer’s fatal Metro subway crash in Washington DC, Congress now is proposing to extend federal rail safety standards to subway and light-rail lines currently “regulated” by understaffed local safety personnel wielding toothless rules. See NY Times Editorial. This would be a great step forward in ensuring the safety of the commuting public. But there is a little known law already on the books that if put to proper use will be a powerful tool to ensure subway safety.

The National Transit Systems Security Act (NTSSA) is a new whistleblower law that protects subway workers who report hazardous safety conditions. The NTSSA prohibits subways from retaliating or discriminating in any way against employees who report unsafe conditions or any fraud and waste of funds. And if the subway does retaliate, the NTSSA’s remedies include reinstatement, back pay, compensatory damages, and up to $250,000 in punitive damages.

So one way to ensure the ongoing safety of subway systems is for employees to vigorously exercise and enforce their new rights under the NTSSA. But this has yet to happen. For example, OSHA’s Region II Whistleblower Office confirms that the single largest group of subway workers in the nation, the nearly 40,000 members of TWU Local 100 who work for the MTA NYC Transit Authority, have generated a mere handful of NTSSA complaints. Given the size and history of the NYC subway and bus system, this can only mean the rank and file workers are unaware of their new rights under the NTSSA. Those workers are the eyes and ears of safety in the subway. Something must be done to raise their awareness and encourage them to speak out whenever they see a safety hazard. For more on the rights of employees under the NTSSA, go to the Rail Whistleblower Library.