January 11, 2005

SPRINGFIELD (Jan. 11)—A joint committee of Illinois House and Senate members has unanimously approved the Illinois Commerce Commission’s proposed Rule mandating safe employee walkways in the state’s railroad yards, freeing the Commission to formally promulgate and enforce the Rule in about a month’s time.

Today’s action by the 12-member Joint Committee on Administrative Rules (JCAR) follows the Commerce Commission’s issuing of a “Second Notice” of its intent to adopt a safe-walkway Rule for railroad yards in Illinois.

As mandated by law, the Commission in September published a First Notice of its intent to issue a Rule following Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s July 22 signing of the state’s first walkway-safety legislation, H.B. 5340. After collecting comments from interested parties and making some adjustments in the language of the proposed Rule, the Commission then published its Second Notice, which JCAR today adopted.

“JCAR is a truly joint committee made up of equal numbers of members from each chamber of the state legislature and equal representation from both political parties,” said UTU Illinois Legislative Director Joseph C. Szabo. “There are three Senate Republicans, three Senate Democrats, three House Republicans and three House Democrats.”

Because all 12 JCAR members voted to approve the Commission’s walkway-safety Rule, Szabo said, actual implementation of the Rule is considered little more than a formality, with the Commission’s power to enforce the Rule taking effect sometime in February.

Once the rule is in effect, he said, any new or replacement railroad infrastructure where work is regularly performed on the ground must automatically be constructed with walking surfaces that conform to the new Rule.

“That means the walkways will either have to have a hard surface, such as asphalt, concrete, planking or grating, or, if ballast is used, it will have to be a fine grade capable of passing through an inch-and-a-half sieve opening,” Szabo said. “Large, chunky mainline ballast will not be acceptable in railroad yards where employees stand or walk alongside moving equipment.”

The new law calling on the Commission to formulate a walkway-safety rule came after a two-year UTU campaign driven by the repeated failure of several rail carriers to remedy walkway defects employees had identified in their work. Carrier representatives told the union they did not need to fix the defects because there was no state regulation that obligated them to do so.

The campaign took on additional urgency a year ago when switchman Steve Hall of UTU Local No. 1003 was fatally injured in Norfolk Southern Corporation’s Kankakee Yard when he stumbled and fell under moving equipment at a location the union had repeatedly called to NS management’s attention as a potential hazard.

“Steve Hall’s death should have served as a wakeup call to Norfolk Southern, but it didn’t,” Szabo said, noting that the carrier, along with Canadian National, continued to oppose the proposed walkway-safety Rule throughout all of the months leading up to its adoption, including today’s final approval by JCAR.

Szabo said the Rule mandates that walking surfaces in rail yards also will have to have a “reasonably uniform surface,” with no abrupt changes in slope or height and at least two feet of width. Carriers will have to keep the walkways free of spilled fuel oil, rocks and other hazards and obstructions that might cause an employee to lose balance.

While new and reconstructed yard facilities must automatically comply with the new Rule, existing facilities will be subject to enforcement only after the union and the rail carriers agree on a complaint of current conditions regarding a hazardous walkway. If the carrier fails to correct the identified hazards the Union can then petition the Commission for enforcement.

“If we find violations in existing yards, and a carrier fails to make corrections, we can get an Order from the Commission for the railroad to remedy the violation,” Szabo said.

“When the Commission issues its Final Rule,” Szabo said, “I will be distributing it to all the local UTU officers, along with procedures chairmen can use to identify non-complying walkway conditions and bring them to the attention of the union, the carrier,and the Commission, if need be.

“There are literally thousands of miles of employee walkways in this state’s railroad yards,” Szabo said. “Making them all safe is going to take a lot of time, so we will have to be patient, systematic and methodical in identifying conditions and documenting them to the carriers. Then, if they are not corrected, we will have the documentation we need for Commission enforcement.”