Ohio rail union blasts Norfolk Southern’s ‘disregard’ for workers’ safety

The Ohio contingent of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) told Gov. Mike DeWine in a letter this week that Norfolk Southern failed to adequately protect workers on the scene of the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine.

“I am writing to share with you the level of disregard that Norfolk Southern has for the safety of the railroad’s Workers, its track structure, and East Palestine and other American communities where NS operates,” wrote J.B. Long, general chairman of the American Rail System Federation of BMWED, in a Wednesday letter. “I am also imploring you as the Governor of the State of Ohio to use your influence and power to stop NS’s reckless business practices that endanger the public and their Workers.”

Long said he had received reports from workers that NS didn’t provide or offer workers with appropriate protective equipment, such as respirators and clothing, while conducting activities such as deep cleaning the heavy equipment after the derailment. The lack of personal protective equipment may have exposed workers to harmful chemicals, he continued, adding that he has received reports that those workers have been experiencing migraines and nausea weeks after the derailment.

The letter also criticized Norfolk Southern for including discussions about the use of automated track inspection (ATI) in negotiations over sick leave. 

As the derailment cleanup was occurring, BMWED was negotiating with NS over sick leave, and the two parties eventually reached an agreement. But one of the initial conditions that NS brought up that was later discarded called for BMWED to withdraw its objections before the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) over ATI, which uses machines to scan the track structure for track defects. 

The union’s position is that while ATI is beneficial, human inspections should also occur because they can spot defects that ATI might not on the right-of-way. BMWED also has concerns whether the safety protocols for the ATI program are sufficient.

“NS clearly recognized that using automated machines to perform the track inspections without any sort of sensible safety-precautions in place would be questionable and not well received by many, especially in the face of NS’s East Palestine derailment,” Long wrote. “That is why NS also wanted BMWED to coordinate the timing of when BMWED was to withdraw its original comments and send NS’s requested letter of support to the FRA.”

Long attributed precision scheduled railroading (PSR), a method to streamline operations that was adopted by NS and other Class I railroads, as the root cause for these two issues because PSR produces a rail culture that emphasizes profit, according to Long. Under PSR, the headcount of BMWED members working at NS decreased by 21% in the name of cutting costs, according to Long, and as a result, that extra workload got shifted to remaining workers. 

In response to BMWED’s letter to Gov. DeWine, NS said in a statement: “In East Palestine, Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately after the derailment and coordinated our response with hazardous material professionals who were on site continuously to ensure the work area was safe to enter and the required PPE was utilized, all in addition to air monitoring that was established within an hour.”

NS continued: “Norfolk Southern is keeping its commitment to negotiate with union leadership to add more paid sick leave to the historic wage increases included in last year’s national labor agreement. We’ve already reached agreements with three unions expanding paid sick leave. As part of our negotiation with BMWED, we asked them to reconsider their opposition to the expansion of our Automated Train Inspection Program (ATIP), an advanced technology that has great potential to increase the safety of rail operations. ATIP technology can detect track defects with significantly higher accuracy than a human inspector, and because ATIP is mounted on locomotives, it conducts an inspection every time a locomotive traverses a track — a much greater frequency than what is possible with a human performing a manual inspection.”

Meanwhile, FRA announced Wednesday that its inspectors would deploy ATI equipment along the track where the NS derailed train as part of a broader program to conduct focus inspections on train routes that see a lot of hazardous materials traffic.

The program, which FRA will coordinate with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will seek to identify routes where high-hazard flammable trains travel and examine those tracks using both technology and human inspections. FRA and PHMSA will also be looking at routes where the traffic includes trains carrying large volumes of hazmat commodities. 

The agencies will start off inspecting the NS route where the Feb. 3 derailment occurred, and the inspections will use a combination of ATI and human inspections, FRA said.

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