Norfolk Southern offered sick pay for fewer inspections: Union

A tank car sits on a trailer as the cleanup of portions of a Norfolk Southern freight train that derailed over a week ago continues in East Palestine, Ohio, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

(NewsNation) — A union representing railway workers says Norfolk Southern is trying to exploit the Feb. 3 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, to win long-sought changes to track-inspection regulations.

Union leader J.B. Long, with the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, is accusing the railroad of “obtuse and shameless” tactics by offering to give union members paid sick time if they drop their objection to the expanded use of automated track inspection devices, thereby reducing the use of visual inspections by rail employees.

NewsNation obtained copies of letters being sent to the Department of Transportation, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the Federal Railroad Administration. The letters state that Norfolk Southern offered the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees union four paid sick days in exchange for an agreement to support Norfolk Southern’s experimental automated track inspection program.

Currently, track inspections are conducted by human track inspectors. The letter alleges Norfolk Southern wanted to replace those with automated track inspections, against the objections of the unions.

Long also said maintenance employees working on cleanup after the train derailment in East Palestine were not given adequate personal protective equipment as they worked to clean up hazardous materials.

Paid sick days were a central issue in contract negotiations between rail unions and companies in 2022, as unions threatened a strike. To avoid a rail shutdown, Congress imposed a contract on the unions that did not include paid sick leave for employees.

Norfolk Southern issued a statement to NewsNation in response to the letter:

“Norfolk Southern is keeping its commitment to negotiate with union leadership to add more paid sick leave to the historic wage increases included in last year’s national labor agreement. We’ve already reached agreements with three unions expanding paid sick leave. As part of our negotiation with BMWED, we asked them to reconsider their opposition to the expansion of our Automated Train Inspection Program (ATIP), an advanced technology that has great potential to increase the safety of rail operations. ATIP technology can detect track defects with significantly higher accuracy than a human inspector, and because ATIP is mounted on locomotives, it conducts an inspection every time a locomotive traverses a track – a much greater frequency than what is possible with a human performing a manual inspection.  

“In East Palestine, Norfolk Southern was on-scene immediately after the derailment and coordinated our response with hazardous material professionals who were on site continuously to ensure the work area was safe to enter and the required PPE was utilized, all in addition to air monitoring that was established within an hour.”

Read the full letter:

This is a developing story. Check back for more details.

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