Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rail Safety Improvement Act Provides Small Labor Victory

Fred Millar, a reader that works on a variety railroad hazmat issues, called my attention to a ‘victory for labor’ in the Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008. That bill recently signed into law by President Bush (PL 110-432) does provide a ‘small’ victory for the railroad unions; it requires railroads to provide Emergency Escape Breathing Apparatus for each crewmember on a train hauling toxic-, or poisonous-by-inhalation (TIH/PIH) chemicals. The provision is a short section (Section 413) in a lengthy bill and it was included in this law due to the fatal train derailment in Graniteville, SC in January, 2005. Crew members from the Norfolk Southern train that derailed may have survived the resulting chlorine leak, if they had had an escape respirator handy. Small Victory I called this a ‘small’ victory for the unions for a variety of reasons. It was not because this an unimportant rule; ensuring that workers have the necessary safety equipment for their work environment is never unimportant. No, the first reason that it is a small victory is that it took three years for Congress to require this relatively low cost safety equipment. Second, this should have already been covered by OSHA regulations. Thirdly, management that cares about its employees should not have required legislation in the first place to provide this minimal level of protection. Finally, this legislation is fatally flawed. It specifically requires that the breathing apparatus be stored in the locomotive. While most trains no longer contain the classic caboose, there are a number of occasions where train crew members ride in cars other than the locomotive. This legislation would provide no protection for those crew members. Alternative Wording If I had been writing these requirements I would have substituted the generic term ‘crew spaces’ for ‘locomotive cabs’ or ‘locomotive’ to ensure that areas routinely accessed by the crew enroute were included in the requirements. The way the legislation is currently written, the FRA does not apparently have the authority to include these areas in this requirement. Finally, I would have included provisions requiring chemical alarms on any TIH/PIH rail car that would alert the crew to the necessity of putting on their protective equipment. Most TIH/PIH chemicals have characteristic odors associated with them that can provide trained workers with adequate warning. Unfortunately, workers outside of the chemical industry that routinely produce or use those chemicals will not likely be able to identify all of those warning odors in time to secure and don the required protective equipment. Small Step Forward This is a small step forward for protecting railroad crews from the worst of the chemicals that they are required to transport. Unions should not rest on their laurels as this issue has not been adequately resolved. Management needs to step up and accept that this is only the minimum requirement necessary to protect their workers.

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