Prove your humanity

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is fining Norfolk Southern nearly $50,000 for workplace safety violations during the chemical cleanup at the site of its East Palestine, Ohio, train derailment. As part of a settlement, the company will also have to monitor any medical issues of workers brought in to clear and rebuild the tracks at the site. 

Those workers had previously reported health problems similar to those experienced by nearby residents after the February 3 derailment, which included 11 cars containing hazardous chemicals. 

After a five-month investigation, OSHA cited the company for failing to inform workers about which hazardous chemicals spilled at the site. The agency also found the company didn’t create a decontamination zone at the site, or ensure they wore appropriate chemical-resistant footwear. 

The violations also included allowing an employee without proper respiratory protection to pour cement on potentially contaminated soil, and not developing an emergency response plan that included clear lines of authority, communication and training, and site security.

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” said OSHA Cleveland area office director Howard Eberts in a statement.

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The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division – International Brotherhood of Teamsters (BMWED), which represents Norfolk Southern workers brought to the site, praised the agreement reached between Norfolk Southern, OSHA and the union. 

In March, BMWED reported some of its workers experienced nausea, headaches, eye and throat irritation, skin rashes and respiratory problems after working on the site in the hours and days following the February 3 derailment.

The union said the agreement will ensure a federal government role in monitoring the health of exposed workers “to ensure that any health problems that materialize in the succeeding years be monitored and assessed by an unbiased party.” 

In a statement, the union said: “It was Norfolk Southern’s decision and theirs alone to send our members to work this toxic site just a scant few days after the derailment. If that decision continues to affect their health in the years won’t be a Norfolk Southern doctor considering what role that played in whatever complications arise. We appreciate OSHA listening to our members and their concerns, and we expect the federal government to safeguard their health and safety going forward.”

 Five of the derailed cars contained vinyl chloride, a highly flammable, highly toxic chemical used in plastics manufacturing, all of which was released and eventually burned off to prevent a catastrophic explosion. The cars also contained butyl acrylate, which can irritate the skin, eyes and lungs, and cause headaches and dizziness, ethylhexyl acrylate, which can cause burning on the skin and in the eyes, coughing and shortness of breath; isobutylene, which can make people dizzy and drowsy; and ethylene glycol monobutyl ether which can cause coughing, dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and weakness if inhaled.

OSHA said its investigation included personal and area air sampling of workers involved in the cleanup.

The company said it was pleased with the settlement. 

“The health and safety of our employees is paramount, and we have worked closely with OSHA and BMWED throughout the investigation,” said Connor Spielmaker, a Norfolk Southern spokesman, in an email. “Partnering with our craft colleagues is extremely important to us. We’ve reached a resolution that provides more training for our people, exceeding OSHA requirements, and makes our responses even safer.”

As part of a settlement agreement, Norfolk Southern will set up an emergency response training program for its union employees.

OSHA also cited a contractor, Washington, Pa.-based Specialized Professional Services, Inc. The company will pay $11,000 for failing to secure its contamination site or set up a decontamination zone. The company did not immediately respond to requests for comment.