Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary of Transportation, speaks during a news conference near the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in Eastern Palestine, Ohio, on Thursday, February 23, 2023.
Matthew Hatcher | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Presidents of the US railroad unions told Biden administration officials that railroad workers at the Norfolk Southern derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, have fallen ill in a bid to achieve greater train safety.
Executives from 12 unions met with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration Amit Bose in Washington, DC on Wednesday to discuss the derailment, the aftermath and necessary safety improvements.
“I hope that stakeholders in this industry can work towards the same goals for safety when transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said Mike Baldwin, President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. “Today’s meeting is an opportunity for workers to share what our members see and deal with on a daily basis.
Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division, told CNBC that Buttigieg planned more talks with unions in the future.
“That was a good start,” Ferguson said. “It is important that these security issues are addressed. Nobody wants another East Palestine. The employee safety discussion needs to be addressed. The operation of these long trains was also a point of discussion.”
The meeting follows letters sent to both the DOT and FRA on Wednesday in which union officials claimed railroad workers had fallen ill at the scene of the derailment. CNBC received the letters addressed to Buttigieg, Bose, Eastern Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway, and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine from the Chairman General of the American Rail System Federation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
According to the letter, Norfolk Southern railway workers who have worked or continue to work at the clean-up site have reported suffering from “migraines and nausea”. A worker reportedly asked his supervisor to be transferred from the derailment site because of his symptoms, but was never heard from his supervisor and was left at the site.
The letter also alleges that workers are not being provided with adequate personal protective equipment such as respirators, eye protection or protective clothing. According to union officials, 35 to 40 workers were on the line and were not provided with proper respirators – only paper and N95 masks – or rubber gloves, boots or cover-ups.
A spokesman for Norfolk Southern told CNBC in a statement that the train company “were on the scene immediately after the derailment and coordinated our response with hazardous materials professionals who were constantly on site to ensure the work area was safely entered and required PPE.” was used, all in addition to an aerial surveillance set up within an hour.
Earlier Wednesday, a group of bipartisan senators introduced the Railway Safety Act of 2023, aimed at preventing future train disasters like the derailment that devastated the Ohio village.
Presidents of 12 U.S. railroad unions meet with Biden officials March 1, 2023 in Washington, DC.
Legislation includes a number of safety protocols for the transport of hazardous materials. It would also create requirements for trackside fault detectors, establish a permanent requirement for railways to operate with at least two people, and increase fines for wrongdoing by railway companies.
“If this law is passed, the [Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen] supports these efforts and looks forward to working together on sound regulations that continue to improve safety,” said Baldwin.
Present at the meeting with Buttigieg and others were:
- Jeremy Ferguson, of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division (SMART-TD)
- Tony Cardwell from the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED)
- Edward Hall of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)
- Brotherhood Railway Carmen (BRC) Don Grissom
- Michael Baldwin of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS)
- Josh Hartford from the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)
- Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
- Arthur Maratea from the Transportation Communications Union (TCU)
- Vince Verna, Vice President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)
- Dean Devita of the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO)
- Leo McCann of the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA)
- John Feltz from the Transport Workers Union (TWU)
- Al Russo from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
Correction: This news item has been updated to correct the list of union representatives who attended a meeting with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. An earlier version included a union leader who did not attend.