rail workers

The trains must go through!

As you might imagine, there was quite a mess to clean up in order to get the rail line running again through East Palestine, Ohio, after 20 rail cars full of vinyl chloride and other toxic materials derailed at the beginning of February. But while the citizens of East Palestine were sheltering-in-place and evacuating, Norfolk Southern, being the responsible custodian of public health that they are, immediately leapt into action, sending 40 of their employees in to start cleaning up the wreckage — and to get the rail line running again.

One might expect a railroad as large and profitable as Norfolk Southern to have a specially trained and equipped Hazmat Team to respond to events like this.  Turns out that may not have been the case.

Many rail 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 Norfolk Southern.

Workers that participated in the cleanup of the train derailment had unanswered questions about their protections, and have experienced lingering migraines and nausea, according to a union representative for workers that build and maintain railways for Norfolk Southern.

Jonathan Long, a union representative for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED), said in a Wednesday letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) that around 40 workers were ordered by Norfolk Southern, which owns the train that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last month, to clean up the wreckage.

Long said he had received reports that the workers were not given proper personal protection equipment to help clean up the wreckage, not being offered respirators, eye protection and protective clothing.

And rail workers are not magically immune from the health effects of the substances they’re directed to clean up.

He also said many 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 [Norfolk Southern].”

Worker Safety

Cleaning up toxic waste spills is a well-recognized hazard.  In fact, there’s even an OSHA standard that is intended to protect worker who clean up these spills: the Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response standard, also known as HAZWOPER.

As OSHA explains, HAZWOPER

established health and safety requirements for employers engaged in these operations, as well as responses to emergencies involving releases of hazardous substances. HAZWOPER requires that employers follow specific work policies, practices, and procedures to protect their workers potentially exposed to hazardous substances. The standards provide employers with the information and training criteria necessary to ensure workplace health and safety during hazardous waste, emergency response, and cleanup operations involving hazardous substances. HAZWOPER aims to prevent and minimize the possibility of worker injury and illness resulting from potential exposures to hazardous substances.

Norfolk Southern insists that a hazmat professional was on the scene immediately to coordinate the response, monitor the air and ensure appropriate PPE was used.

But we’ll see if that actually happened.

When sending workers in to clean up a toxic release, employers can’t just say, “Holy Cow! There’s a big chemical spill of methyl-ethyl-death and God-knows what else. Slap on these respirators, grab some shovels and buckets, and head over there and clean that stuff up!”

Employers can’t just say, “Holy Cow! There’s a big chemical spill of methyl-ethyl-death and God-knows what else. Here’s a bunch of respirators, shovels and buckets. Head over there and clean that stuff up!”

It’s not that simple.

There are training requirements under HAZWOPER for 8, 20 or 40-hour training courses.  The 8-hour course is generally just basic awareness. The 40-hour course is for workers who are exposed to hazardous materials above OSHA Permissible Exposure Levels (PELs) — and for which respiratory protection is required. Personal Protective equipment can include not just respirators,  all the way up to Self Contain Breathing Apparatus, depending on the toxicity of the hazard, as well as protective clothing.  There are also requirements for decontamination and medical surveillance, and there needs to be a detailed written emergency response plan.

And they have to be trained to use the equipment properly — especially the respirators — or they won’t protect the workers. In addition, any employees who are required to use respirators at work, must previously have a medical evaluation.

The 24-hour course is for workers who have a temporary or short work task at a HAZWOPER site  — and no potential for exposure to hazardous substances or materials above the PEL exists; and no respiratory protection is required.

While it’s not clear exactly what the rail workers were doing in East Palestine, a 2012 OSHA Letter of Interpretation about applies to clearing and re-railing train cars after derailment situations explains that:

General site workers (such as equipment operators and general laborers) who are engaged in hazardous substance removal or other activities that expose (or potentially expose) them to hazardous substances and health hazards must receive 40 hours of off-site training and 3 days of supervised field experience. [29 CFR 1910.120(e)(3)(i)]. Please note, however, that different training requirements apply to other employees and supervisors/managers at the site. [29 CFR 1910.120(e)(3)(ii), (iii) and (e)(4)].

So how much training did the rail workers need? And how much did they get? What kind of personal protective equipment did they need and what did they get? We don’t know that yet.

But the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is holding the first Congressional Hearing on the rail disaster on Thursday morning. Hopefully, a Senator will ask about what the workers were exposed to and whether they were properly trained and protected.

OSHA to the Rescue

OSHA inspectors as well as high level officials are at the site to ensure the safety of cleanup workers currently working at the site — and presumably to ensure that Norfolk Southern didn’t violate HAZWOPER in the immediate aftermath of the derailment.

Jurisdiction over rail worker safety and health is complicated. Paragraph 4(b)(1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act gives authority over certain aspects of rail worker health and safety to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) instead of OSHA. And there is no requirement that FRA protections must be at least as effective as OSHA requirements.

But a 2012 Memorandum of Understanding between OSHA and the FRA clarifies that “OSHA’s regulations relating to substantive safety and health requirements apply to railroad employees, while safety and health issues specifically relating to railroad operations are regulated and enforced by the FRA.”

And a 2012 OSHA Letter of Interpretation states that “Train car derailment response operations, where there is an emergency response to a release (or a substantial threat of a release) of hazardous substances, would be covered by the HAZWOPER standard paragraph (q, Emergency response. [29 CFR 1910.120(a)(2)(iv)].”



2 thoughts on “East Palestine: The Forgotten Rail Workers”
  1. It seems that Norfolk Southern has missed the mark when it comes to being proactive in their safety measures here. If HAZWOPER has been in place since 2012, why haven’t they established internal procedures to ensure they have a team that is properly trained in HAZWOPER? Why hasn’t OSHA required the training for companies that handle toxic chemicals?
    I agree, Jordan, that the rail workers safety and health is a huge concern here but what about the people who live in Ohio and the surrounding areas that are affected by this chemical spill? Who gave the authorization to burn toxic chemicals at the spill site; have they been identified and interviewed? Why was soil being removed and shipped to other parts of the U.S.; who made that decision?
    With government deregulation comes greater responsibility for the company to be proactive instead of reactive. The fact that Norfolk Southern sent 40 ’employees’ to the site means nothing when those same people were never trained to handle an event like this. How many people (workers & civilians alike) have to be injured or killed before companies are held to account for their shortcomings in safety?
    The answer is NOT government regulation, the answer is within each of these corporations. The people sitting at the top of the hierarchy have to want to be proactive, they have to actually care about people, but unfortunately those people are solely driven by their company’s bottom-line.

  2. I have faced a lot of pushback from individual managers in my career concerning emergency response teams. I had one facility with superb rescue capabilities and a sister facility 30 minutes away with arguably greater risks with pathetic response capabilities. Nobody in the C-suite bit the former site manager’s head off for spending the money to field a fire brigade and rescue teams. One could not blame “the company,” per se. It was the individual site manager of the latter who did not see the value…until disaster struck one day.
    That manager’s paradigm was similar to that of many Americans. We are terrible at emergency planning. We can blame companies, but it is simply a reflection of American society as a whole. Some rural areas in the US struggle to get volunteers for local fire brigades and emergency services, including mine. People complain about school shootings, but I wonder how many parents would dedicate two weeks a year being a hall monitor at their child’s school to help improve security and prevent future catastrophes. We know the answer. Many companies today struggle to field emergency response teams even when they have the funds to do so. Today’s revolving door at workplaces makes it extremely difficult. If you have never personally managed a fire brigade or confined space rescue team in an industrial facility, it is difficult to appreciate the challenge. Having 40 “qualified” people standing by to respond to an emergency anywhere in the country at a moment’s notice is not simply a matter of expense. It’s a logistical nightmare to maintain that level of response outside of the military or certain government agencies. I’m not saying companies don’t have skin in the game.

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