Today’s front page article in the New York Times exposes the fundamental problem with the rail management’s safety culture. When a mayor and her fire chief went to the site of a liquid gas derailment in their town, the railroad threatened to arrest them. Describing the railroad’s response to their legitimate concern over an obvious safety hazard, the mayor said, "They don’t have to tell us a thing. It’s a very arrogant attitude." For the full "Hazards Ride the Rails in Secret" article, click here.
Not surprisingly, railroad employees who report safety hazards are subjected to the same arrogant hostility. Congress responded by enacting Subsection (b)(1)(A) of the Federal Rail Safety Act, which protects employees for "reporting, in good faith, a hazardous safety or security condition."
But what constitutes the "good faith" reporting of a safety hazard? Is a worker’s "honest, subjective belief" sufficient? Or must the belief be "objectively reasonable"? The recent district court decision in Jason Worcester v. Springfield Terminal Railway Company elucidates the answer to those questions.
When Springfield Terminal ordered untrained personnel to remove hazardous material from the right of way, Signal Foreman Jason Worcester objected, warning it would be unsafe. He was charged with insubordination, subjected to the usual kangaroo court, and terminated.
After Jason filed for a jury trial in federal court, the Railroad moved to dismiss the case, arguing his report of the safety hazard was not done "in good faith." The district judge denied the motion and ordered the case to trial. In so doing, the Court noted:
"An employee taking on a task he cannot safely complete could constitute a hazardous safety condition," and "warning a supervisor about such a condition could constitute reporting."
The Court found both the "subjective belief" and "objective reasonableness" standards were satisfied by the evidence in the case. However, the Court also stressed that Subsection (b)(1)(A) "contains no explicit requirement that the employee’s actions be objectively ‘reasonable.’"
Bottom line? The text of the FRSA does not require "objective reasonableness" for reports of safety hazards. The rules of statutory interpretation dictate that "good faith" is satisfied when the employee "held an honest, subjective belief that there was a hazardous safety or security condition." For the full text of Worcester v. Springfield Terminal Railway Co., click here. For a Summary of the FRSA, click here. For free access to the Rail Whistleblower Library, click here.