A railroad union official recently reached out to U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in an open letter to report that Norfolk Southern is “dangerous to America” after multiple railroad workers sent to do clean up work in Ohio fell ill with “migraines and nausea.”
Norfolk Southern has been in the news in the past month due to a major train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. The train was carrying a huge load of the toxic chemical gas vinyl chloride. Residents of the area were evacuated for safety, and the EPA has ordered testing of the soil, air, and water to determine whether they’re safe after the disaster.
But according to union official Jonathan Long, Norfolk Southern didn’t bother with such reasonable safety precautions before sending employees in to clean up the area.
In his letter, Long introduces himself as the General Chairman of a labor organization representing almost 3,000 “Maintenance of Way Employees,” the experts responsible for keeping the railroad tracks in safe, working condition.
Long says he has worked for Norfolk Southern Railway for 28 years, and that in that time, Norfolk Southern has adopted “reckless business practices that endanger the public and their workers.”
Specifically, Long names a business model called “Precision Scheduled Railroading.” He explains that this approach began in 2015, and involves running “behemoth trains” too large for the tracks, removing 30% of employees industry-wide since 2015 and overworking the remaining staff, and “eliminating fail-safes or preventative safety precautions.”
Long says this unsafe business model exists purely to line the pockets of executives, shareholders, and investors.
Because Norfolk Southern is trying to maximize profits, Long says it’s making decisions that are unsafe for individual workers and the areas where they operate. For example, he’s received complaints from workers cleaning up the East Palestine derailment, saying that they haven’t been given appropriate protective gear or removed from the job site when experiencing health issues possibly caused by chemical exposure.
Meanwhile, Long’s union has been negotiating unsuccessfully with Norfolk Southern for sick leave for its workers who fall ill during cleanup efforts.
Norfolk Southern offered to grant that request, but only if the union withdrew its official objections to experimental automatic track inspections.
Long says that while the AI-powered automated inspections are a useful tool, they aren’t an effective substitute for human inspectors because they only detect certain kinds of problems. But Norfolk Southern wants to use them to replace human inspectors.
The company’s proposed deal, which the union rejected, even requires the union to wait a few months before changing its official position, which Long says is to avoid safety objections related to the East Palestine derailment.
“[Norfolk Southern] and other railroads alike must be stopped from continuing their cost-cutting business model and start focusing on how they can improve their performance to be as safe as possible,” Long says. “[Norfolk Southern] and other railroads alike must be held accountable in their operations.”
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