Rail union officials have warned Democrat President Joe Biden’s administration that railroad workers are “falling ill” after being deployed to the toxic train derailment cleanup site in East Palestine, Ohio without adequate protective equipment.
The presidents of 12 U.S. unions issued the warning to Biden’s Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg during a meeting in Washington D.C. on Wednesday.
Union leaders met with Buttigieg and Amit Bose, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, to discuss the Norfolk Southern train derailment, the aftermath, and needed safety improvements.
The unions argue that a lack of support from the Biden admin has resulted in workers being dispatched to the toxic cleanup site with sufficient safety equipment.
They revealed that workers are now “falling ill” after joining the cleanup effort at the site where carcinogenic chemicals were spilled during the derailment.
“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 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 that Buttigieg plans on more talks with the unions in the future.
“It’s important these safety issues are addressed,” said Ferguson.
“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 Gov. 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.
However, the worker 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 Wednesday, a group of bipartisan senators introduced The Railway Safety Act of 2023.
The bill seeks to prevent future train disasters like the derailment that devastated the small Ohio town.
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.