Pete Buttigieg, US transportation secretary, speaks during a news conference near the site of the Norfolk Southern train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, US, on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2023.
Matthew Hatcher | Bloomberg | Getty Images
The presidents of U.S. railroad unions told Biden administration officials that rail workers have fallen ill at the Norfolk Southern derailment site in East Palestine, Ohio, in a push for more train safety.
Leaders from 12 unions met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, in Washington, D.C., Wednesday to discuss the derailment, aftermath and needed safety improvements.
“My hope is the stakeholders in this industry can work towards the same goals related to safety when transporting hazardous materials by rail,” said Mike Baldwin, president of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen. “Today’s meeting is an opportunity for labor to share what our members are seeing and dealing with day to day. The railroaders labor represents are the employees who make it safe and they must have the tools to do so.”
Jeremy Ferguson, president of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers – Transportation Division told CNBC Buttigieg plans on more talks with the unions in the future.
“This was a good start,” said Ferguson. “It’s important these safety issues are addressed. No one wants another East Palestine. The safety discussion of employees must be addressed. The running of these long trains was a point of discussion as well.”
The meeting comes on the heels of letters sent to both the DOT and the FRA Wednesday in which union representations claimed rail workers had gotten sick at the derailment site. CNBC obtained the letters, addressed to Buttigieg, Bose, East Palestine Mayor Trent Conaway and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, from the general chairman of the American Rail System Federation of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
According to the letter, Norfolk Southern rail workers who have worked or continue to work the cleanup site have reported experiencing “migraines and nausea.” One worker reportedly asked his supervisor to be transferred off the derailment site because of his symptoms, but never heard back from his supervisor and was left at the job site.
The letter also claims workers are not being provided appropriate personal protective equipment such as respirators, eye protection or protective clothing. According to union representatives, 35 to 40 workers were on the track and were not supplied with proper breathing apparatuses — only paper and N95 masks — or rubber gloves, boots or coverups.
A Norfolk Southern spokesperson told CNBC in a statement that the train company 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.”
Earlier on Wednesday a group of bipartisan senators introduced The Railway Safety Act of 2023, aimed at preventing future train disasters like the derailment that devastated East Palestine, Ohio.
Presidents of 12 U.S. railroad unions meet in Washington, D.C., on March 1, 2023 for a meeting with Biden officials.
The legislation includes a number of safety protocols for the transportation of hazardous materials. It would also create requirements for wayside defect detectors, establish a permanent requirement for railroads to operate with at least two-person crews, as well as increase fines for wrongdoing committed by rail carriers.
“If this legislation is adopted, the [Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen] supports those efforts and looks forward to working collaboratively on common sense regulations that continue to improve safety,” Baldwin said.
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, of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees (BMWED)
- Edward Hall, of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET)
- Don Grissom, of the Brotherhood Railway Carmen (BRC)
- Michael Baldwin, of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (BRS)
- Josh Hartford, of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM)
- Lonnie Stephenson, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
- Arthur Maratea, of the Transportation Communications Union (TCU)
- Vince Verna, of the National Conference of Firemen and Oilers (NCFO)
- Leo McCann, of the American Train Dispatchers Association (ATDA)
- John Feltz, of the Transport Workers Union (TWU)
- Al Russo, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW)
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the list of union representatives present at a meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. An earlier version included a union leader who did not attend.