A detailed federal whistleblower complaint criticizes a lax safety culture at Boston’s transit authority and says the problems extend to hazards discovered on a multibillion-dollar light-rail extension project.
Ronald W. Nickle, a veteran safety director and former chief safety officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, claims that the agency fired him the day after he met with federal officials about critical safety issues and efforts to increase agency transparency.
The MBTA had experienced several heavily publicized problems with derailments and operational slip-ups. But the issues related to the $2.3-billion Green Line Extension project were not previously in the public domain. The long-delayed, 4.7-mile extension to Medford is supposed to open in 2021. It broke ground in June 2018 and includes seven new stations and three vehicular bridges.
While whistleblower complaints are not unusual, such scathing critiques by safety chiefs at major state transportation agencies are less common. The picture that emerges from the complaint isn’t pretty. It portrays a changing agency management lineup over the years that Nickle says is now more interested in image than substantive safety. Staff cuts reduced the number of safety-related personnel while key MBTA managers received increases, he notes.
“I believe efforts were exerted to undermine my authority, responsibilities, obligations, and duties as a Chief Safety Officer while actively dealing with major safety concerns on the [Green Line extension] project, and serious violations of federal safety laws, rules and regulations,” he wrote in the 88-page complaint filed with the Federal Transit Administration.
Nickle’s attorney, Charlie Goetsch, says his client was fired because he “invited scrutiny to MBTA’s safety record and culture.”
An MBTA spokesperson replies “safety is the MBTA’s top priority” and the authority disputes allegations made in Nickle’s statement regarding his firing.
The spokesman said the MBTA had legitimate reasons for terminating Nickle that included complaints against him by subordinates of a “demeaning and condescending management style” and unwillingness to listen to other opinions. Nickle's complaint is "replete with mischaracterizations and falsehoods," the MBTA added.
The MBTA’s investigation is ongoing, the spokesperson said, and will nonetheless "review the former employee's unsubstantiated claims." The authority, the spokesman added, has made a number of changes to improve its performance and has hired a new chief safety officer.
On March 21, Nickle met with the FTA, the Federal Railroad Administration and the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities to report on the results of his safety audits and inspections, according to Goetsch. He also represents Nickle in a separate National Transit Systems Security Act (NTSSA) federal whistleblower retaliation complaint filed on June 27 with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's whistleblower directorate office in Boston.
Nickle alleges that earlier this year, GLX Constructors seriously injured an employee while off-loading equipment, apparently caused by "a lack of job hazard analysis and safety briefing..." During the week of his termination, he says two additional incidents, including a wall collapse during demolition that struck a business, heightened his concern with GLX Constructors safety performance and "lack of safety management in all areas of safety..."
Prior to his dismissal, Nickle was also reportedly investigating accidents, including a worker’s electrocution on the Orange line, a commuter rail train that had lost a wheel mid-commute and a Green Line derailment during the Patriot’s Super Bowl parade.
An FTA spokesperson declined to comment on the matter. Similarly, OSHA neither confirmed nor denied the filing of a whistleblower complaint.
First Public Words of Construction Issues
The construction issues were not previously known. GLX Constructors is a joint venture including Fluor Enterprises Inc., the Middlesex Corp., Herzog Contracting Corp. and Balfour Beatty Infrastructure Inc. won the $1.08-billion design-build contract in November 2017.
In March, while conducting an audit following two near-miss incidents during GLX project construction, Nickle says he found “a complete breakdown in on-track safety protocols, non-compliance with federal regulations and non-conformance with the Railroad Workplace Safety Program.”
“Unsafe construction activities involving heavy equipment operation exposed workers to serious injury or death,” Nickle says in the complaint.
Late last year, Algonquin Gas alleged that GLX Constructors had performed construction equipment activities near its high-pressure line without Algonquin’s authorization and without an Algonquin spotter to ensure pipeline safety.
Nickle also alleges that track ballast did not meet commuter rail track and regulatory safety standards, compromising the structural integrity of the track structure. Inspections.
In another matter, Nickle claims an inspection determined that a section of the lines “curved track encroached upon the minimum clearance limits of the bridge abutment and needed to be realigned to correct the defect,” he alleges. “The severity of a derailment into a bridge abutment is potentially catastrophic.”
GLX Constructors referred requests for comment an allegations related to its work to MBTA.
Gov. Charlie Baker (R) told reporters at the Charlestown Navy Yard that he supported the MBTA decision to fire Nickle.
In a recent statement through his attorney, Nickle says “I am heartened by the overwhelmingly positive comments I have received from members of the public regarding my situation.”