April 29, 2015

CHICAGO (April 29)–It was supposed to be the dawn of a new manufacturing era in a part of Illinois from which industrial jobs had virtually disappeared.

But since Nippon Sharyo Corp. opened its new passenger-railcar factory at Rochelle, Ill., 23 miles south of Rockford, in 2012, that radiant dawn has been obscured by a dark cloud of worker injuries and repeated safety violations.

In the two years since the plant opened,Nippon Sharyo has been cited by the Federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration(OSHA)for one serious health violation, six serious safety violations and four lesser safety violations. The company has paid $34,000 in fines.

So a day after the April 28 Worker Memorial Day, SMART-TD Assistant State Director Joe Ciemny joined some two dozen demonstrators from the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition and gathered outside the Kluczinski Federal Building in downtown Chicago to protest Nippon Sharyo’s careless management and to celebrate OSHA’s creation 45 years ago.

“The serious health violation was levied because Nippon Sharyo ‘failed to put into place welding shields/screens to protect workers…from health hazards such as arc eye and welder’s flash,’” said Rachele Huennekens of Jobs to Move America, citing language in OSHA’s citation.

“The serious safety violations were from various issues relating to rickety planks used as scaffolding and lack of fall protection for workers working on the tops of railcars,” Huennekens said.

The first OSHA citation, in March 2014, charged the company with failing to provide proper ventilation for employees using an extremely flammable chemical.

A former employee of the plant who asked not to be named told “Hot Topics” it is common for employees working on the roof of a bi-level Metra car to stand on a “questionable” scaffold 17 feet above the floor with only a battered sheet of sagging plywood for a floor and no railing to hold back a worker in the event of a stumble or loss of balance. An OSHA citation says “employees did not receive training in the use of personal fall-arrest systems.”

That last omission was particularly painful to the demonstrators because Nippon Sharyo received $4.7 million from the State of Illinois to cover the cost of training its new workers.

“There’s a climate of fear in the factory,” said Susan Hurley, executive director of Jobs with Justice. “It’s just totally unacceptable from a company that gets all of its contracts from
state departments of transportation or regional transportation authorities. It’s incredible that this sort of thing is still going on in 2015.”

“A major part of the problem is that the plant is not unionized,” said SMART-TD Illinois Asst. State Legislative Director Joe Ciemny. “A union contract with an employer normally includes workplace health and safety provisions which allow employees to stop work if specified hazards are not remedied.”

Tony Garcia, Illinois Legislative Director for the United Auto Workers, said such agreements are standard in the state’s unionized auto factories.

“The job of an assembly technician at a Ford assembly plant in Chicago shouldn’t be so different than the job of an assembly technician at Nippon Sharyo’s plant in Rochelle,” Garcia told the demonstrators.

“Safety is a partnership in a unionized factory,” he said. “In a UAW-represented facility there is at least one UAW safety representative for every company rep. Our people have the ability to shut down production if there is a safety issue that might cause harm to an employee.

“Irresponsible non-union employers like Nippon Sharyo take a different approach—often cutting corners, doing training on the fly or not at all, and using the cheapest, inadequate
equipment,” he said.

SMART-TD Illinois State Legislative Director Robert W. Guy called it “ironic” that one of the nation’s safest and most unionized industries—railroading—is being supplied with a major asset built in a non-unionized factory with a poor workplace-safety culture.

“Look at the latest SOFA reports,” Guy said. “Switching railroad cars used to be one of the most dangerous of all industrial activities, but its fatality and injury rates have plummeted since our union and the carriers began collaborating on identifying the causes of accidents and bringing the carriers and the employees together in learning how to avoid them.

“That’s the way workplace safety is supposed to work,” Guy said. “There has to be an understanding that workers can bring workplace hazards and unsafe work practices to the attention of the employer without fear of retaliation.

“But it’s very difficult to create and enforce that understanding without a strong union to bargain on behalf of the employees” he said. “Let’s hope those Nippon Sharyo workers can get organized soon.”