Norfolk Southern Employees Suffering From Lingering Illnesses, Scathing Union Letter Says

Workers “continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment.”

Gene J. Puskar/AP

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In a scathing letter to Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Norfolk Southern worker and Teamsters union rep denounced the rail company’s cost-cutting business model, alleging that workers who were deployed to clean up February’s vinyl chloride spill have experienced adverse health effects.

“I am writing to share with you the level of disregard that Norfolk Southern has for the safety of the railroad’s Workers, its track structure, and East Palestine and other American communities where NS operates,” Jonathon Long, who said he had been employed with Norfolk Southern for 28 years, wrote. “I am also imploring you as the Governor of the State of Ohio to use your influence and power to stop NS’s reckless business practices that endanger the public and their Workers.”

Concerns about Norfolk Southern’s cost-cutting, anti-labor policies have been spreading for weeks, but Long’s letter paints the most vivid picture yet of the company’s apparent disregard for its workers’ safety. In the letter, Long identified the implementation of “precision scheduled railroading,” or PSR, a system that he says involves increasing the lengths of trains while slashing the number of employees, as one of the primary ways that the company has prioritized profit over the safety and well-being of its workers. “The new business model of PSR is implemented by freight rail carriers not to benefit America’s supply chain through the timely delivery of good,” he wrote, “but solely for the advancement of railroad executives, shareholders, and Wall Street hedge fund investors in the form of record profits, dividends, and stock buybacks.”

In addition to systemic issues, Long criticized Norfolk Southern’s immediate response to the spill of toxic chemicals in East Palestine, Ohio. Long wrote that workers assigned to clean up the spill were not provided personal protective equipment and that many “continue to experience migraines and nausea, days after the derailment, and they all suspect that they were willingly exposed to these chemicals at the direction of NS.” (Norfolk Southern insisted in a statement to CNBC that “hazardous material professionals…were on site continuously to ensure the work area was safe to enter and the required PPE was utilized.”)

Following the letter, leaders of 12 rail unions met with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Federal Railroad Administration administrator Amit Bose in Washington, DC, on Wednesday. In addition to paid sick leave, the unions are fighting for regulatory changes to ensure railroad safety.

“NS and other railroads alike must be stopped from continuing their cost-cutting business model and start focusing on how they can improve their performance to be as safe as possible,” Long wrote. “NS and other railroads alike must be held accountable in their operations, through rule-making and regulatory reform that establishes minimum safety standards in their operations.”

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