OSHA puts its own ‘hickory stick’ to BNSF

December 17, 2010

A UTU member will be collecting more than $95,000 in penalties assessed against BNSF by the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) for the railroad’s violation of the Federal Rail Safety Act.

OSHA found BNSF guilty of intimidating and harassing an injured UTU member who reported his workplace injury to the Federal Railroad Administration. The monetary award covers back wages, compensatory damages, attorney’s fees and punitive damages.

This is the first major award by OSHA after UTU International President Mike Futhey requested UTU designated legal counsel ramp up efforts to assist members whose whistle-blower rights under the Federal Rail Safety Act have been violated.

BNSF employee Ronald Helm (Local 1532, Kansas City), targeted for discipline after being injured on the job, didn’t feel so helpless against his powerful employer after his local chairperson, Joe Lopez, attended a seminar on whistle-blower rights given by a designated legal counsel. Helm is a 33-year veteran of the former Santa Fe and BNSF.

With assistance from General Chairperson Jim Huston (BNSF, GO 009), and committee Secretary Rex Pence, a case was developed and presented to OSHA, which administers the law as it applies to whistleblower protection.

Helm had been assessed a 30-day record suspension with no time lost, given one-year probation, and assessed 40 points against his personal performance index after reporting his personal injury to the FRA. Had the injury not been FRA reportable, he would have been assessed only five points.

BNSF said the penalty against Helm was for using a pin lifter, instead of a hickory stick, to adjust mismatched couplers in BNSF’s Argentine, Kan., yard. Evidence showed BNSF had not made the hickory stick available until after Helm’s injury.

Moreover, according to OSHA, BNSF’s discipline was arbitrary because BNSF typically does not discipline workers for using different tools if work is performed in a timely manner.

“An employer does not have the right to retaliate against employees who report work-related injuries,” said OSHA. And BNSF’s points system serves to discourage the proper reporting of workplace injuries, said OSHA.

In addition to the monetary penalty, BNSF was ordered to inform each of its employees in its Kansas Division — and in writing — of their whistle-blower rights under the Federal Rail Safety Act of 2007.

“This case and the work of our designated legal counsel shows that the federal law protecting whistle-blowers has teeth and that it can and will be used to stop the intimidation and harassment faced by our members,” Futhey said.

“UTU members who think they have been retaliated against for reporting workplace injuries should discuss the matter with a UTU designated legal counsel, their general chairperson or state legislative director,” said Futhey.

Complaints must be filed with OSHA within 180 days of the alleged employer retaliation.

Click on the following link for a listing of UTU designated legal counsel:


Click on the following link for a detailed OSHA fact sheet: