Railroader: Hearing loss at job led to decline in quality of life

HOLLIDAYSBURG – An Altoona railroader told a Blair County civil court jury Monday that he has lost half of his ability to hear because of the constant noise he was exposed to during his more that 30 years with Conrail and Norfolk Southern Railway.

John Bankert, 62, said he now has hearing aids that help him decipher conversation, listen to television and talk on the phone.

The hearing loss he suffered resulted in his being “taken out of service” by the railroad in 2009, which was 2 years before he intended to retire, he said.

It also forced Bankert to change his lifestyle, his attorney, Gerard J. Martillotti of Philadelphia said.

The former railroader is asking for monetary damages to cover his years of lost work and alterations he had to make in his lifestyle.

The lost wages could come to about $140,000, the jury was told.

Bankert has been hired as a security guard at the Altoona Area High School.

One problem Bankert said he faced was finding hearing aids that worked.

The railroad also presented its side of the case during opening addresses in Judge Timothy M. Sullivan’s courtroom.

“You are going to hear two very, very different stories,” said attorney T.H. Lyda of Pittsburgh, representing Conrail and Norfolk Southern.

Lyda said that in 1995, when Bankert’s hearing loss was only 4 percent – not the 50 percent or more where it is at today – he and the railroad settled the case for $1,500.

The company took steps to protect Bankert after his initial hearing loss was discovered. Lyda said that ear protection was provided for Bankert, who was a freight train conductor.

He claimed Bankert didn’t always wear the protective ear devices.

The railroad attorney said that the law does not require that the company create perfect conditions to avoid hearing loss.

The law only requires “reasonable” steps to help injured workers, and Lyda claimed that railroad in the Bankert case met its burden.

He said Bankert did not initially tell the railroad about his severe hearing loss, and he suggested that a noisy work environment might not be the only cause of Bankert’s problems.

Bankert was involved in a traffic accident in the 1980s that could have contributed to today’s problems, and he pointed out that Bankert’s father, who never worked for the railroad, wears a hearing aid.

He suggested that age and genetics may have contributed to the hearing loss.

Bankert took the witness stand Monday and explained that his job in the Altoona yard between 1995 and 2009 required him to put together trains, sometimes up to two miles long, and then ride those trains to their destination.

He was daily exposed to very loud engines, the “squeal” of retarders on the brake system, constant beeping, the discharge of air hoses, horns, bells and other noise sources.

While the railroad said he didn’t wear his protective ear muffs, Bankert said he did. But he explained that he often took them off when in the yard because he had to be aware of what was happening around him and because he had to communicate by radio with the yard master.

The lawsuit is being brought under the Federal Employees Liability Act, which, according to Martillotti, requires that the railroad provide a “reasonably safe work place.”

The railroad claimed federal regulations required it to remove Bankert from service after his severe hearing loss became known in January 2009.

Mirror Staff Writer Phil Ray is at 946-7468.