Illnesses at Norfolk Southern Toxic Train Derailment Site Reported By Rail Unions

Union leaders say workers were made to work at the Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment site without proper personal protective equipment, even after they began reporting illnesses.

Unions representing railroad workers indicate that illnesses are being reported among those exposed to toxic chemicals at a Norfolk Southern train derailment site in Ohio, and have accused the company of “reckless business practices” that endanger workers and the public.

The concerns were outlined in letter to Ohio Governor Michael DeWine (PDF) and U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg (PDF) on March 1, and then relayed directly to in a meeting with representatives from 12 unions for various types of railroad workers. They told officials that Norfolk Southern has a business model that skimps on safety to increase profits, which they believe contributed to the recent derailment.

Norfolk Southern faces intense scrutiny and criticism in the wake of the East Palestine train derailment on February 3, near the border of Pennsylvania. The accident, which is still under investigation, resulted in 50 freight cars leaving the track, including many filled with toxic chemicals, such as vinyl chloride. The derailment led to the temporary evacuation of nearly 2,000 local residents and brought national attention to railroad safety concerns.

While the chemicals have been linked to various cancers and other health problems, experts admit they currently do not know what may be the long-term health risk from the Ohio train accident, leaving many questions and concerns among local residents, and resulting in a growing number of Norfolk Southern toxic train derailment lawsuits already being filed.

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The letters, written by American Rail System Federation (ARSF) General Chairman J.B. Long, accused Norfolk Southern of endangering workers and the public for profit, and urged state and federal officials to step in. However, they also warn there are growing concerns of illnesses among railroad workers who have been working at the cleanup site with inadequate personal protective equipment.

“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,” Long’s letter to DeWine states. “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.”

According to Long, shortly after the train derailment, Norfolk Southern sent 40 of its maintenance employees to the site to clean up the wreckage. However, they were not provided with appropriate personal protective equipment, such as respirators, eye protection or protective clothing, necessary to keep them safe from working with toxic substances.

In addition, when workers complained that the equipment they were given was not appropriate for the toxic chemical exposures they faced, they received little or no response from Norfolk Southern officials, the letter claims, and now that some of them are beginning to report illnesses, including nausea, migraines and respiratory problems, the company seems to be trying to ignore those complaints or sweep them under the rug, leaving workers suffering symptoms of illness to continue working at the site, without proper equipment, or potentially face losing their jobs.

“Many other Employees reported that they continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of NS,” the letter states. “This lack of concern for the Workers’ safety and well-being is, again, a basic tenet of NS’s cost-cutting business model.”

Federal officials say the meeting held later that day with union leaders will be the first in an ongoing discussion about what needs to be done to improve both worker safety and public safety in the railroad system.

Norfolk Southern Toxic Train Derailment Investigations

In addition to an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is looking into reports of a potential brake problem that may have contributed to the accident, as well as the train’s massive size, other agencies are also looking into the causes of the accident and Norfolk Southern’s business practices and response.

Late last month, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sent a response team from its Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), which is now interviewing residents about their health concerns and symptoms they have developed since the accident.

In addition, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation joined a growing number of voices calling for an examination of the railroad industry’s safety practices when transporting hazardous materials. In a letter sent to the CEOs of the seven largest railroad companies in the U.S., she requested they turn over all detailed information and documents on those practices by March 17.

On February 10, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent a notice to Norfolk Southern, announcing it was considering to make the company pay for the cleanup costs under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). Since then, EPA officials have said in live interviews that they will definitely require Norfolk Southern to pay for those costs.


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