One of the largest freight railroad companies in North America, Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) Railway, is accused of forcing workers to skip critical safety checks and firing employees who blow the whistle on unsafe practices.
A former BNSF employee named Curtis Rookaird, a conductor for the railway for six years, says he was fired in 2010 for insisting that he perform certain safety checks over the objections of his supervisor.
“I was just doing my job, like I was trained to do, that day,” Rookaird says. “I didn't know I was going to be in such a battle — and it's a battle for my life, for my family ... not just for my job.”
On February 23, 2010, Rookaird went to the rail yard in Blaine, Washington, ready to start lining up train cars and doing safety checks. One of the most important checks is called an air test: a conductor or brakeman walks the length of a train to see if the air brakes on each car are properly set and functioning.
“If you don't have brakes ... you don't have control of the train,” Rookaird says. “You can crash into things.”
Testing air brakes is standard operating procedure for Class 1 railroads, including BNSF. But on that day, Rookaird's supervisor told him and his crew to hurry up, and that the air brake test wasn't necessary.
“It was really odd,” Rookaird says. “We were looking at each other, going, ‘Can he be serious? What is going on here?’”
Rookaird did the air brake test. His supervisor then dismissed him for the day. A replacement crew was brought on hours before his shift was supposed to end. Rookaird called the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which regulates railroads, and asked if he'd done anything wrong. The FRA said he was right to have conducted the air brake test, even though his supervisor told him not to.
Later, the FRA conducted an investigation of the incident and fined BNSF Railway. The FRA declined to be interviewed for this story. A month later, BNSF fired Rookaird. The company claimed he failed to work efficiently and had not properly filled out his timesheet that day.
More than fifteen trains of oil from the Bakken Shale of North Dakota cross the American Northwest each week, most of it transported by BNSF. Forty-seven people died last summer when air brakes on a train carrying Bakken oil were deactivated, allowing it to roll into a community in Quebec. That investigation is ongoing.
Curtis Rookaird is not alone in his experience with the BNSF Railway. The public radio reporting initiative EarthFix found three other pending cases where workers say they were fired for insisting that standard air brake testing procedures be followed.
In more than a dozen interviews, current and former BNSF employees described an intimidating work culture that discouraged workers from reporting accidents, injuries or safety concerns. Several spoke on condition of anonymity because they are afraid BNSF will fire them for speaking out.
BNSF Railway declined to be interviewed for this story.
Herb Krohn, a union representative for 2000 rail workers in Washington state, decries what he calls a “culture of blame” in the industry. “There's this ... 'blame the messenger' kind of situation,” he says. “We've had situations where people have been fired because they continually did report safety violations.”
Railroad worker fatigue is another issue that has dogged federal regulators for years. Railroad engineers and conductors have to be ready to report for duty on relatively short notice and their schedules are often erratic, making it difficult to get adequate or regular sleep.
Krohn says that workers on any given oil train rolling through Seattle may have been awake for 24 hours at a stretch. That, combined with fewer workers per train than in the past, could be a recipe for disaster.
“The history of railroads in America has been one where things generally don't get corrected until people die,” Krohn says, “and that is frightening to me.”
In an emailed statement, BNSF says it conducts frequent operational tests and audits to make sure employees are working safely and in compliance with all company rules. The company also pointed to its formal policies prohibiting retaliation against whistleblowers.
At a rail safety meeting held in Vancouver, Washington, in March, BNSF spokeswoman Courtney Wallace told EarthFix the company is committed to worker safety.
“We have a safety culture,” Wallace said. “If an employee sees something that isn't right — whether that's a supervisor-level or someone below them or at their level — they feel comfortable enough to say, ‘Stop, that is not the right approach.’”
Curtis Rookaird is skeptical. He and other current and former BNSF employees say management values speed over safety. “They get performance bonuses based upon velocity — and if they don't show those cars moving, they don't get those bonuses,” Rookaird says.
His legal battle with BNSF is now in its fourth year. He found work in North Dakota oil fields as a truck driver, but the pay wasn't as good as when he worked for BNSF. Rookaird's family is now more than $100,000 behind on their mortgage payments.
Curtis Rookaird’s wife, Kelly, says that BNSF — which is controlled by billionaire Warren Buffett — is delaying justice and had no right to fire her husband.
“Safety should come over money,” she says. “That's what I'd like to say to Warren Buffett. ‘Wake up. Us little people — you can take everything from us — but you're not going to take our pride and our dignity.’ [Curtis] loved his job and we loved his job, too. He would take those boys out to the train and teach 'em about the engines ... He thought maybe one day one of these kids might want to follow in his footsteps, but now that we go through this, I don't know.”
In September of last year, the Federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration ruled in favor of Curtis Rookaird and ordered BNSF to put him back to work. BNSF appealed OSHA's ruling, as they have done with several other similar whistleblower cases.
The Rookaird's home is now in foreclosure, and the family could be forced to move within a month. Curtis Rookaird's case won't go before a federal court until May of next year.
This story is based on a longer article from the collaborative reporting initiative EarthFix reported by Ashley Ahearn, with help from Tony Schick. It also appeared on PRI's Living on Earth, a weekly environmental news and information program.