The leaders of 12 railway unions told the Biden administration that workers involved in the cleanup effort at the site of a train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio are falling sick.
Union heads met on Mar. 1 with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Amit Bose, administer of the Federal Railroad Administration, to discuss the derailment and ways to improve safety measures.
“My hope is the stakeholders in this industry can work towards the same goals related to safety when transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said Mike Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen, as quoted by NBC News in a report. “Today’s meeting is an opportunity for labor to share what our members are seeing and dealing with day to day. The railroaders labor represents are the employees who make it safe and they must have the tools to do so.”
The meeting came the same day Buttigieg received a letter from a rail union that blasted the influence that Wall Street “activist investors” played in curbing railway safety protocols to increase profits.
In the letter, Jonathan Long, General Chairman of the American Rail System Federation (ARSF) of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED), says that despite residents of East Palestine being evacuated because of hazardous chemicals, rail workers involved in the cleanup were inadequately protected.
“I received reports that [Norfolk Southern] neither offered nor provided these workers with appropriate personal protective equipment, such as respirators that are designed to permit safety working around vinyl chloride, eye protection and protective clothing such as chemical restraint suits, rubber overboots and rubber gloves rated for safely working around the spilled chemicals that prevent direct contact with such substances,” he wrote.
Norfolk Southern, he says, is one of many freight railroads operating under a cost-cutting business model called “Precision Scheduled Railroading” (PSR).
“This business model was foisted upon the railroad industry by Wall Street ‘activist investors’ and hedge funds starting around 2015,” Long explained. “What this business model really involves is running longer, heavier behemoth trains that the track structures are not necessarily designed to handle.”
He also says that PSR cuts workers from the workforce and shifts the entire workload onto remaining workers, resulting in them being required to work faster for longer hours.
Long told Buttigieg that the business model eliminates preventative safety precautions that facilitate safer operations and helps prevent disasters like derailments. He also called on the administration to do more to increase safety for thousands of union workers.