August 28, 2012

GALESBURG (Aug. 29)—Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway officials, working with local UTU and BLET members, have recently improved walking and footing conditions at the carrier’s giant Galesburg Yard where safety complaints had developed over the steeply sloped, mainline-gauge ballast installed on three new yard tracks.

Ironically, the situation arose in connection with a much needed improvement in the yard’s design: Earlier this year, BNSF built three new staging tracks on the east side of the yard alongside the Brookfield Subdivision that connects Galesburg with Macomb and
Quincy. Tracks 3094, 3095 and 3096 are about three miles long and are used as receiving/departure tracks for through trains changing crews at Galesburg.

But last spring at a regular meeting of UTU Local #195 a member complained that crews trying to board and leave their locomotives were being endangered by unsafe footing. Although the new tracks were formally part of a yard, BNSF had laid the full length of each track on mainline ballast—fist-size chunks of rock heaped at an angle as steep as 45 degrees. Crews faced a drop of three feet from the bottom step of a locomotive to the adjacent roadway. Descending from a locomotive with a grip or boarding while trying to boost a water jug up onto the stairway was cumbersome and held the potential for a serious slip-and-fall.

In a March 14 notice to BNSF Terminal Supt. John Abrahamson, Local #195 Legislative Representative Mac English detailed the lack of a uniform, level surface and cited Section 1546 of the Illinois Administrative Code. The Code calls for a ballast diameter of less than ¾ inch at locations where work is performed on the ground and restricts sloped surfaces to one inch of increase in elevation for every eight inches in horizontal distance.

Brother English’s notice got prompt attention. The issue was turned over to the joint union/management Galesburg Risk Reduction Team. On July 19 an audit team of UTU and BLET members inspected the north and south ends of the three new tracks and suggested the construction of landing pads 75 to 100 feet long at each end of each track. When the team completed its review, BNSF ordered supplies, construction began August 3 and the finished pads were commissioned August 8.

“The Galesburg case is a textbook example of how much a union can do to improve the workplace safety of its members without ever having to go above the local level,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy.

“Our office in Chicago didn’t even become involved until August 9, when I wrote a follow-up letter to Mr. Abrahamson about Local #195’s concerns,” Guy said.

“Mr. Abrahamson wrote back to me August 13 explaining that the whole matter had been taken care of and enclosing photos showing the new landing pads on all three tracks.”

Guy said the successful disposition of the Galesburg ballast issue was “doubly satisfying” because the union not only got the intended results but got them at the local level through member activism.

“We never had to file a formal complaint or ask any level of government, such as the Illinois Commerce Commission or the Federal Railroad Administration, to step in,” Guy said. “Our local leaders worked it all out themselves with the local BNSF management, and that’s a credit to the local labor members who wouldn’t let the issue fade away.”

Guy said the lesson is that “local activism works.”

“But there is a catch to it,” he said. “It only works if you’ve got dedicated union members. It’s just a shame that most American workers still lack this simple tool for influencing management to develop a safer work environment.”