February 6, 2014

CHICAGO (Jan.23) The Illinois Legislative Board of SMART-Transportation Division has been extremely successful in getting the railroads to eliminate walkway hazards on parts of their property where train and yard crews must work on the ground.

House Bill 5340, passed in 2004 after a two-year struggle between the Illinois Legislative Board and the rail carriers, authorized the Illinois Commerce Commission to establish and enforce standards for ballast size, drainage, slope and obstacles associated with areas where train crews must walk while performing work.

But making the law work doesn’t always require calling the authorities. Sometimes the union’s work takes the form of jawboning the railroads about a safety hazard.

But what happens when a walkway hazard is discovered on property not under the control of a railroad, such as inside a shipper’s factory or warehouse?

“That’s a different matter, and it can be a difficult one,” said SMART-TD Illinois Legislative Director Robert W. Guy. “Our usual allies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), have little jurisdiction over non-railroad property.”

It’s a problem the union had to address in September after members switching cars inside U.S. Steel Corp.’s Granite City mill found they were stumbling around on taconite ore pellets that could have caused a serious fall around moving equipment. Local #469, which represents employees at the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis, and Local #1402, representing Union Pacific employees, both complained about the dangerous cargo that had been spilling out of railcars.

“Unlike natural iron ore, which is a fine powder, taconite is compressed into hard balls about the size of a marble,” Guy said. “Step on one—or more likely on a dozen—and you’re going to go down.”

In a Sept. 17 letter to FRA Region 6 Administrator Steve Fender, Guy noted that the problem is so serious that the TRRA, in applying for an FRA waiver that would allow its crews to skip the transfer brake test for equipment on U.S. Steel property, admitted the ore pellets created “unsafe walking conditions” and had hoped to “prevent employees from having to walk in an unsafe area.”

“The railroad pretty much verified, in an official waiver request, the very concerns that our members had been notifying them of for quite some time,” Guy said.

Guy also noted that the only switching fatality recorded on the U.S. rail system in 2013 by the Switching Operations Fatalities Analysis (SOFA—see “Hot Topics,” Jan. 4, 2014) group was on a shipper’s private property.

“The SOFA group, made up of FRA, rail labor and rail carrier representatives, understands that certain hazards may exist at private industries, as well as understanding that railroads must provide employees with the tools and/or assistance to allow them to safely perform their work while within an industry,” Guy told Fender.

So what’s to be done when a hazard is discovered on property where FRA lacks jurisdiction?

On December 18 Fender reported back to Guy that the FRA had investigated the issue and held a meeting November 20 that included the Illinois Commerce Commission, TRRA and UP, and U.S. Steel to discuss the walkway-safety issue at the U.S. Steel site.

“Administrator Fender recognized the industry’s past efforts in regards to a clean-up but agreed with our members assessment that the pellets continue to be a problem,” Guy said.

He said U.S. Steel acknowledged the problem and said it agreed a regular maintenance plan was needed in order to limit the hazard, and the two railroads said they would work with the shipper to secure the services of one of their own cleanup contractors to provide visits by an industrial vacuum truck on an as-needed basis.

“We are pleased with this initial meeting as well as with the union’s role in it,” Guy said. “Although the FRA agreed it had no legal authority to force this shipper to comply with any of their regulations, they understood the dangers and agreed to get involved by bringing the two carriers in and letting them use their relationship with their customer and with their cleanup contractors to seek an improvement.

“Under current law, the rail carriers have the only ‘hammer’ over a shipper who maintains a workplace hazardous to rail employees,” Guy said.

“But that’s O.K. As we’ve learned in a number of other situations, you don’t need to call a cop for every situation that develops. Sometimes when you encounter one of these legal gray areas, all you need to do is to get people around a table and talking. Our union is good at that.”