The growth and development of this great country of ours is directly tied to the growth and development of our railroad system. It’s been written about, romanticized, brought in enormous profits, and made it possible for every industry from mining to meat processing to flourish. The country owes a lot to our railroads.

But the expansion of the railroads came at a great cost. Historically, working for a railroad has been a very dangerous occupation. In the early days, the average life expectancy of a brakeman on a train, and in the switchyards, was only about seven years. Only one in four lived to die of natural causes. It was definitely a dangerous way to earn a living.

Have you ever wondered where the saying, “Let me see a show of hands” came from? The story goes that when a railroad crew foreman was looking for workers in a group of men, especially brakemen, he would ask for a show of hands. Any man raising his hands who had all of his fingers was usually disqualified because it meant he hadn’t had much on-the-job experience. That’s a dangerous occupation!

Fortunately, a lot has changed since those early days. The biggest change came in 1908 when Congress passed the Federal Employers Liability Act, commonly known as FELA. For the first time in American history, railroad workers were given certain rights and protections at work. Most importantly, the workers and their families were given the right to sue their employer for compensation due to injury or death on the job. It was the country’s first attempt at workman’s compensation.

The new threat of expensive lawsuits went a long way in making railroads a safer place to work, and improvements were made. After more than one hundred years, improvements continue to be made, but that doesn’t mean working for a railroad is without risk. It is still listed as one of the more dangerous places to work with higher than average fatality and injury rates when compared to other industries. When injuries do occur, they are more likely to be severe. The average number of days missed due to injury is 25, compared to an average of 8 in private industry. 45% of those injured on the job are out for more than 31 days, compared to only 27.9% in other industries.

Of course, no workplace can be made hazard or risk free, and some occupations are just inherently more dangerous than others. Railroad workers are regularly faced with risks like loose or uneven footing when walking on ballast (the foundational material around tracks), climbing between and up the sides of rail cars, and working around moving trains and coasting cars in switchyards. All that work has to be done in all kinds of weather: heat, cold, driving rain, freezing drizzle and snowstorms. Yes it’s an environment that is dangerous, but when mistakes are made it is also unforgiving. A small slip up can have tragic results.

Advances in technology and training have come a long way, but the guiding principles behind FELA are as important today as they were in 1908. These are some of the requirements of FELA to which railroads, and all industries, are required to comply:

– Provide a reasonably safe place to work

– Provide proper safety tools

– Set safe working methods

– Enforce safety regulations

– Provide reasonable and adequate training

America’s railway workers have a long and proud history of keeping the nation’s railroads running in all kinds of weather under all kinds of conditions. The work can be tiring and dangerous, and we should not take their work for granted. So when you hear the distant horn or rhythmic clicking of a train on the tracks in the night, or see one making its way across the open countryside, remember the men and women who keep them moving and offer them a silent thank-you.