Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. 102 years after he signed the original rail safety statute into law, the Federal Employers Liability Act is still doing its job: exposing the unsafe practices of railroads and holding railroads accountable for the employee injuries that result.
The sad truth is, rail managers habitually ignore their own responsibility for the unsafe conditions that injure workers and instead focus all blame on the victim. This has the noxious effect of leaving the root cause of injuries in place, thereby prolonging the risk and guaranteeing more employee injuries. But in the right hands, the FELA is a powerful weapon that can pierce the armor of rail management denial and expose the truth about unsafe work practices. The remarkable story of electrician Jim Deacon is a case in point (see below for news links)
One of the most horrifying dangers on any railroad is a high voltage electrical arc explosion. During an arc explosion metal melts into a superheated plasma that engulfs workers in a fireball hotter than surface of sun, and is usually caused by defective cable connections. To prevent arc explosions, railroads must routinely inspect electrical equipment to confirm all connections are secure. And to completely eliminate the risk of arc explosions, railroads must deenergize the power before employees begin working on the equipment.
On October 30, 2006, electrical tester Jim Deacon was assigned to work inside a third rail sectionalizing switch box that was an arc explosion waiting to happen. Because Metro North had not inspected that box, Metro North did not know there was a positive 700 volt cable under a metal motor housing that was completely disconnected and touching the metal housing, thus electrifying it. When Jim took off his protective gloves in order to thread a narrow #6 negative wire (following the practice in the field), the negative wire happened to touch the improperly electrified metal motor housing, sparking an arc explosion fireball. Jim spent a week in the Burn Unit with second and third degree burns over 15% of his body. Over the next year he endured three surgeries with multiple skin grafts.
And what of Jim’s Metro North managers? Instead of taking responsibility for causing the explosion by their unsafe practice of not inspecting and not deenergizing, Metro North blamed Jim for his injury and disciplined him for not wearing gloves at the moment of the explosion. And instead of preserving the crucial evidence, the managers destroyed the cable end and connector barrel involved in the explosion, and denied they had shot any videotape during their investigation. Fortunately an anonymous source mailed Jim a copy of the video shot by the top manager showing him personally ordering workers to reach inside the live box without protective gloves on, the very same act for which the manager disciplined Jim.
Jim returned to work in the Metro North Power Department for 17 months, but the ongoing unfair blame and unsafe working conditions took a severe toll on his psychological condition, to the point he was medically disqualified from working.
But the FELA finally forced the Railroad to admit the truth. After 3.5 years of blaming Jim, on the eve of trial Metro North admitted the explosion was caused by its negligence and that Jim did not contribute to his injuries in any way. This crucial vindication–plus the $1.1 million Metro North will pay Jim–would not have happened without the FELA.
So Teddy Roosevelt’s rail safety law is indeed working as intended. For a two minute video regarding the arc explosion, go to the New Haven Register news site, where a copy of rail safety expert James Sottile’s excellent Report detailing the failures of Metro North management is available as well.