Railroad Worker Accidents Covered by FELA

What types of railroad accidents & worker injuries are most likely to give rise to a FELA claim?

The fatality rate for railroad employees is approximately twice as high as it is for the average American worker, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report. For certain types of railroad employees, particularly for brake, signal, and switch operators, the fatality rate is even higher. Constant physical exertion, long hours, and mental exhaustion can all lead to incidents causing severe injuries to employees.

The Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) provides a measure of protection to all railroad workers in the United States. FELA requires railroads to act particularly diligently to ensure the safety of their employees. If a railroad employee is injured and can show that negligence on behalf of the railroad or any of its employees caused the injury, the railroad will be liable for the employee’s injuries.

In the sections that follow, we discuss some of the most common types of injuries that result in a FELA claim.

Coupling Accidents

Coupling accidents have historically been a leading cause of injuries in the railroad industry. As the use of coupling safety devices -- including automatic couplers -- becomes more mainstream, these kinds of injuries have been declining, but they still occur. Railroads should take safety precautions above and beyond the use of safety devices, including training employees to never reach between train cars during coupling operations.

Coupling safety devices are now becoming so widely used that failure to use them could amount to proof of negligence, exposing the railroad to liability in the event of an injury. The risks associated with coupling activities are well recognized by experts, and safety devices are now sufficiently inexpensive that failure to purchase them may be considered an unreasonably risky decision.

Train Cars Striking Pedestrian Workers

The movement of railcars can be an extremely dangerous condition of employment at a rail yard. When immediate movement is not intended, railcars should be chocked. When movement is intended, spotters and/or mirrors should be used in a way sufficient to see in front of, behind, and underneath the cars being moved.

Because of the size and weight of railcars, contact with individuals even at extremely low speeds can produce devastating injuries. A pedestrian employee injured by a moving railcar will often be able to file a lawsuit against the railroad company. It is likely in most circumstances that the injured employee will be able to show some level of negligence on behalf of the person responsible for the moving car, and that will typically be sufficient to entitle the injured worker to recover compensation under FELA.

Collisions at Street Crossings

Despite increased safety mechanisms, collisions between trains and motor vehicles at crossings still occur. Although the motorists usually get the worst of the injuries in these collisions, railroad employees can also suffer severe injuries and death.

These collisions tend to be primarily the fault of the motorists. A railroad employee may be able to sue a motorist for injuries suffered, but the provisions of FELA would not apply to that lawsuit. But, in this sort of situation, a railroad employee may be able to also file suit against the railroad pursuant to FELA by arguing that the warning signs and safety devices at the crossing were insufficient to prevent the accident.

Cumulative Trauma Injuries

Railroad employees often work long hours of physical labor. This can lead to significant wear and tear on the body. That wear and tear can be exacerbated by conditions of the employment that are less than ideal.

A common example is ballast size. Experts recommend that a different type of ballast be used in a rail yard than is commonly used to support track. The road bed ballast tends to consist of pieces that are relatively large. Regularly walking on this ballast can be detrimental to a person’s health over time because the surface is unstable and shifts beneath the feet of a walking employee. Yard ballast is finer and provides better support. If a railroad uses improper ballast in its yards, employees tend to suffer nagging knee and back pain and injuries after many years on the job. FELA allows workers to sue their employer for compensation for those injuries.

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