The F.E.L.A. imposes on railroads the statutory duty to use reasonable care to provide each employee a safe place to work. This includes reasonably safe fellow employees and reasonably safe track, roadbed, cars, locomotives, machinery, tools or other equipment.
The duty of railroads to provide employees with a reasonably safe place to work is absolute, continuous, and non delegable. It extends to any form of defect that makes the work place unsafe. Breach of this duty is probably the single most common reason for recovery under the F.E.L.A. Again, what is "reasonably safe" is a question to be decided by the jury.
There are a number of ways in which a railroad can be held to be negligent for failing to provide a reasonably safe work place. For example, actionable negligence has resulted from such cases as an employee slipping on a defective manhole cover (Van Horn v. Southern Pacific); where coal was piled on a path used by a brakeman (Bird v. St. Louis-San Francisco); and where a mat on a caboose platform was worn, causing an employee to slip and fall (McCarthy v. Palmer).
Of course, this does not mean that the mere happening of an accident demonstrates that the railroad failed to provide a reasonably safe place to work. For example, a switchman working in the yard may allege that he sprained his ankle because of walking on ballast in the usual performance of his duties. All railroad yards have ballast, and the test is whether the ballast at the location of the alleged accident was unreasonably hazardous.
The duty to provide a safe place to work follows wherever the railroad sends an employee to work.
In Brum v. Wabash, the railroad was held liable for holes in ballast where railroad workers regularly worked, even though the property belonged to someone else.
In Ericksen v. Southern Pacific, the employee was a tie inspector who was sent to the dock of a lumber company to inspect ties. While on the lumber company's property, he suffered an injury as the result of an unsafe condition. The Court held that he had a cause of action against his employer for sending him to the lumber company.
Another leading case on this point is Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis v. Fitzjohn, in which an engine foreman on a switching crew was knocked from the side of a car by a light pole located near the track on property owned by the U.S. government. Even though the facts developed that the plaintiff knew the obstruction was there, the Court upheld the verdict and reiterated the duty of the railroad to provide a safe workplace, irrespective of the fact that the property was owned by someone else.
The railroad's obligation to furnish a reasonably safe workplace may extend over third-party premises.
In Kooker v. Pittsburgh & Lake Erie, the plaintiff parked his car in a vacant lot and was walking to work when he suffered an injury because of an unsafe condition. The Court held that the employer was negligent, even though the third party had primary responsibility for maintaining its property, because it was the general custom of railroad employees to park there and use this route to work.
In another leading case on this point, Metropolitan Coal Company v. Johnson, the Court said that in making such a determination it was necessary to consider that the obvious purpose of the F.E.L.A. was to enlarge the remedy of railroad employees injured as a result of hazards incidental to their work. The railroad's obligation is far-reaching. For example, a railroad may be liable for injuries suffered by a train or engine crew member while staying at a designated lodging point between runs.