OMAHA, Neb. (AP) __ Norfolk Southern has made improvements after one of its trains derailed, caught fire and spilled toxic chemicals near an Ohio town, but the company is nowhere near the “gold standard for safety” which it is trying to do, according to federal regulators. However, the railroad is generally only prepared to meet minimum safety requirements.
The Federal Railroad Administration released a 143-page report on the Atlanta-based railroad’s safety culture on Wednesday. The agency has been working on the report for months since thousands of people had to evacuate their homes after the derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.
Poor communication and mistrust between employees and managers hindered Norfolk Southern’s efforts to improve safety, the report also said. The agency questioned whether the company’s training for employees and managers was adequate.
“At a time when many people who work and live near railroads are asking legitimate questions about how major freight railroads operate, railroads must have a safety-focused culture and operations. ,” said agency manager Amit Bose. “This first-of-its-kind review __ conducted immediately after the Norfolk Southern derailment in East Palestine __ shows time and time again that the railroad needs to do more to ensure the safety people deserve.”
The agency has promised to conduct similar safety culture reviews of all major freight railroads, including CSX, Union Pacific, BNSF, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific Kansas City, but has not set a timeline for those reviews.
Norfolk Southern is cooperating with safety officials and responding to the report’s findings, said CEO Alan Shaw, who since the Feb. 3 derailment near Pennsylvania has repeatedly called on his railroad to set “the standard of gold” for industrial safety.
Bose met with Shaw and several other railroad executives Tuesday to review the findings, and the company provided a copy of the report to Atkins Nuclear Secured, an independent consultant with expertise in submarines. nuclear that reviews the company’s safety program.
“We’re not waiting” to act, Shaw said. He said the railroad will continue to work on the improvements announced in March while trying to respond to regulators’ recommendations.
The rail agency said its investigation “showed many examples where NS seemed more concerned with complying with the minimum safety requirements of federal regulations and industry standards than with understanding and seeking to address safety concerns that are outside the bounds of existing rules and regulations.”
And as investigators looked into the railroad’s practices, they “encountered numerous instances of mistrust between employees and their frontline supervisors,” including times when employees refused to meet with investigators because they fear they will be disciplined for speaking about their safety. anxiety.
Shaw defended the rail’s overall safety record and said the number of derailments had fallen since it began overhauling its operations in 2019 and making widespread job cuts in the name of efficiency. But the federal agency pointed out that between 2018 and 2022 the rate of accidents per million train miles at Norfolk Southern rose faster than any other major freight railroad.
The agency said it had noticed some initial progress since the derailment, but that it was inconsistent because the railroad did not regularly communicate changes to all of its supervisors and employees.
Just last year the agency audited Norfolk Southern’s safety practices and training programs after three railroad employees – including two conductors with less than a year on the job – were cut off while duty. The agency made 25 recommendations in that audit that the railroad did not immediately or comprehensively respond to.
Just two days before the East Palestine derailment, “NS responded, indicating that if the recommendations exceeded the minimum regulatory requirements, they would not take further action, but promised to participate in corrective action for in most of the recommendations,” the report said.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating what caused the Ohio derailment after holding hearings on it in June. But the agency said the derailment was probably caused by overheating of one of the train’s cars. A sensor triggered an alarm about that bearing but the crew didn’t have time to stop the train before the cars full of dangerous chemicals started moving away from the tracks.
The federal railroad agency took a closer look at how Norfolk Southern monitored the sensors and found that there was always just one employee — sometimes working from home — monitoring all of the roughly 1,200 detectors across the board. railroad network of 19,500 miles (31,382 kilometers) of track in the eastern United States. And that person relies on email to alert dispatchers about any problems — which creates the possibility of a notification delay. The man also faced reports of mechanical problems from train crews and safety concerns reported by the public.
In addition to Wednesday’s report, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said it fined the railroad $49,111 for failing to provide proper protective gear and adequate hazardous materials training to workers sent to East Palestine immediately. after the derailment to rebuild the tracks. .
Norfolk Southern also agreed to establish a medical monitoring program to track the health of on-site workers and improve its training for future derailments as part of an OSHA settlement.
Tony Cardwell, who heads the union representing track maintenance workers, said he’s glad to see OSHA do something to hold the railroad accountable because its “actions are totally out of line. ” Cardwell said he was “blown away” when he learned his members were working at the derailment site wearing just their normal leather gloves and boots and not the hazmat suits he often sees on the news.
“Unless agencies come in and force carriers to do these things, they’re not going to do it because there’s a cost associated with it,” said Cardwell, who is president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of the Way Employes Division union.
Photo: FILE – A black plume rises in East Palestine, Ohio, as a result of a controlled explosion on a section of derailed Norfolk Southern trains, Feb. 6, 2023.
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