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From East Palestine, Silicon Valley & Hunters Point, Toxins, Workers & Whistleblowers

OSHA fines Norfolk Southern for worker safety violations at East Palestine chemical cleanup

By Reid Frazier - Allegheny Front, August 9, 2023

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining Norfolk Southern nearly $50,000 for workplace safety violations during the chemical cleanup at the site of its East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. As part of a settlement, the company will also have to monitor any medical issues of workers brought in to clear and rebuild the tracks at the site. 

Those workers had previously reported health problems similar to those experienced by nearby residents after the February 3 derailment, which included 11 cars containing hazardous chemicals. 

After a five-month investigation, OSHA cited the company for failing to inform workers about which hazardous chemicals spilled at the site. The agency also found the company didn’t create a decontamination zone at the site, or ensure they wore appropriate chemical-resistant footwear. 

The violations also included allowing an employee without proper respiratory protection to pour cement on potentially contaminated soil, and not developing an emergency response plan that included clear lines of authority, communication and training, and site security.

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” said OSHA Cleveland area office director Howard Eberts in a statement.

TCU National Representative Jason Cox at NTSB’s Investigative Hearing in East Palestine

Northeast Ohio Protestors Demand Justice for East Palestine

By x409232 - Industrial Worker, June 20, 2023

At about one o’clock on Saturday, March 11, at least 40 local residents and activists gathered in Lisbon, Ohio to demand justice for East Palestine. They focused their protest on rail giant Norfolk Southern and its role in the derailing of the train on Feb. 3, 2023.

The seat of Columbiana County, Lisbon is less than 20 miles from the now infamous East Palestine. The afternoon air was cold but not biting – typical March weather here in the Mahoning Valley. But the atmosphere was tense. 

People had joined together to show their anger at Norfolk Southern and determination to make them pay for damages. They held signs and distributed info about community actions to get more people involved. They also gave testimony for the news cameras.

I made my way from my home in Salem, just a 10 minute drive down State Route 45. The derailed train had first passed through our town, already on fire, on its way to its eventual wreckage site. It easily could have been my own family evacuating in February–a thought that has kept me up many nights since.

I parked and shuffled from my spot near Fox’s Pizza Den into the town square. There, protesters had already gathered, holding signs for passing traffic. “Make Norfolk Pay,” read one. “You break it, you buy it,” read another.

Railroad Workers United didn’t attend for fear of company retaliation, but sent a solidarity statement read by a DSA member. “Put power back in the hands of the workers!” cried one speaker. “Workers make the world run.”

Now often called Ohio’s Chernobyl, East Palestine previously led a quiet existence. But the town of 4,800 was thrown into disarray, and then despair, by February 3’s 150-railcar “mega-train” derailment. This industrial catastrophe doused the surrounding area with extremely hazardous chemicals. 20 railcars contained deadly compounds, including one million pounds of vinyl chloride.

Residents around the town testified (and still do) of headaches, nose bleeds, dizzy spells, nausea, rashes, difficulty breathing, sore throats, and more. Norfolk Southern and the government specified a one mile hazard zone, but people 30 to 50 miles out–or more–are being affected. According to testimonies at the solidarity action in Lisbon, Norfolk Southern’s “clinic” staff and state officials have told sick residents that these symptoms are “all in their heads.” (Yet CDC inspectors have also fallen sick with the same symptoms. So much for that!)

Rail Workers Union Wins 'Trailblazing' Paid Sick Leave Deal With Norfolk Southern

By Jessica Corbett - Common Dreams, May 19, 2023

"The BLET is currently working to secure similar sick leave agreements with the other Class 1 railroads," said the union's national president, "and I hope this settlement will help bring those negotiations to a positive conclusion."

A leading railroad workers' union this week struck a landmark deal with industry giant Norfolk Southern to provide more than 3,300 employees up to seven days of paid sick leave each year.

"This is a big day for the BLET," declared Scott Bunten, a Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen general chairman. "Our members are the heart of the railroad, and this agreement is a major win in our tireless efforts to improve the quality of their experience on and off the job."

Similarly describing the union's engineers as "the hardest-working folks on the railroad," fellow BLET chairman Jerry Sturdivant said the agreement "recognizes the critical contributions our members make to keep the railroad and the American economy running."

Under the deal, Norfolk Southern engineers will get five paid sick days annually, plus they will be able to use up to two additional days of existing paid time off as sick leave. The new policy will take effect once union members ratify an accompanying quality-of-life agreement, which they are expected to vote on within the next month.

Work Won’t Love You Back: We Were Warned

By Sarah Jaffe - The Progressive, May 5 2023

It was the workers’ nightmare come true.

The Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3 sent a toxic barrage of hazardous chemicals into the air, soil, and water and caused untold damage to waterways, wildlife, air quality, and people’s health. It was a grim confirmation of what rail workers have been saying would happen for years. And it could have been worse.

No one was killed or badly injured in the derailment itself, and most of the 149-car train’s cargo was nontoxic. Fears of a massive explosion, which led to the evacuation of nearby residents, did not happen. But it’s hard to say there’s a silver lining to a disaster that prompted a “controlled burn” of toxic chemicals producing a cloud visible from passing airplanes, says Ross Grooters, a longtime railroad worker and co-chair of Railroad Workers United, a caucus of rail workers that spans multiple unions. Still, they add, after an attempt by rail workers to strike over working conditions—including ongoing safety concerns—was squelched by members of Congress and President Joe Biden late last year, at least there is renewed attention on the rails.

But if the politicians and the rail companies had listened to the workers, this accident, and others, might have been prevented. In the weeks following the disaster, three more Norfolk Southern trains derailed—in OhioMichigan, and Alabama—the latter occurring just before the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, appeared before Congress to answer questions about the Ohio disaster.

I first spoke to Grooters in late January for a story about the rail workers’ fight for paid sick leave. At the time, they described a constant pressure to do more with less, exemplified by a system known as precision scheduled railroading, or PSR.

“The ‘precision’ part of ‘precision scheduled railroading’ is how precisely can we cut the operation to the bone and still have it walk around as a full skeleton,” Grooters told me. “They’ve cut so deep that it just doesn’t function and they don’t have people to fill the jobs.”

There had been cutbacks to track and equipment maintenance, and more equipment fatigue and derailments. “It just feels really unsafe when you’re in the workplace. It’s like we’re rolling the dice with all these things.”

In 2020, for example, The Washington Post reported that more than 20,000 rail workers had lost their jobs in the previous year, of which more than 3,500 had been at Norfolk Southern. Simultaneously, train lengths were increasing, adding more cars to the workload of the same tiny train crew. A rail engineer told the Post at the time, “They found they can hook two trains together and cut a crew.”

Rail workers were stressed, but railroad stock prices jumped. The following year, two rail workers’ unions filed suit, alleging that Norfolk Southern had sliced rail crews so deeply because of PSR that engineers were having to do the work of conductors and brakemen. “[Norfolk Southern] cannot lawfully lay off roughly 4,000 conductors and brakemen, and then give their work to another craft,” the two union presidents said in a statement at the time.

East Palestine Derailment Disaster Continues to Unfold with Amanda Kiger

Rail Workers Group Heartened by Inclusion of Class One Railroads on 2023’s “Dirty Dozen” List of Employers Putting Workers and Communities at Risk

By Ron Kaminkow, Ross Grooters, and Jason Doering - Railroad Workers United, April 26, 2023

Today, the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) announced the Council’s annual list of twelve employers whose unsafe practices put the health and lives of workers as well as the safety of communities at risk, known as the “Dirty Dozen” employers. The nation’s big Class One Railroads - including BNSF, CSX, Kansas City Southern, Norfolk Southern, Union Pacific, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National Railway – were among them, after being nominated for the distinction in February by the group Railroad Workers United (RWU).

“Rail workers have, for years, been blowing the whistle on unsafe practices of Class One Railroads,” said RWU General Secretary Jason Doering. “These employers have pushed for single-person crews; implemented Precision Scheduled Railroading where cost-cutting measures have resulted in longer, heavier trains operated with fewer workers, while cutting back on both inspections and maintenance; put in place disciplinary policies forcing sick workers into work; failed to offer paid sick time; and continued their long-standing practice of retaliating against rail workers who report safety hazards and job-related injuries.”

“The tragedy in East Palestine, Ohio in February, 2023 brought the nation’s attention to what Railroad Workers United (RWU) has been warning against for 15 years,” added RWU Co-Chair Ross Grooters. “We hope this disgraceful distinction for the Class One Railroads as a 2023 ‘Dirty Dozen’ employer gains the attention of government agencies, unions, environmental and community organizations, and others. It is past time to force Class One Railroads to make the changes needed to protect the health and lives of rail workers and the safety of communities from coast to coast.”

“We thank National COSH for accepting our nomination of Class One Rail Carriers as a 2023 ‘Dirty Dozen’ employer,” said RWU Organizer Ron Kaminkow. “This is a ‘distinction’ these rail employers have worked hard for, and they deserve to take their rightful place on this year’s ‘Dirty Dozen’ list.”

US freight workers say it’s time to nationalize the railroads

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