August 10, 2023

FRA, OSHA call on Norfolk Southern to review safety practices


Improving communication and training as well as fostering trust between the company and its workers are some of the areas where Norfolk Southern could do better, according to a Wednesday report from the Federal Railroad Administration assessing the eastern U.S. Class I railroad’s safety culture.

FRA’s report comes on the heels of an unrelated announcement Wednesday from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration describing a settlement among OSHA, NS and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way – Employes Division (BMWED) over alleged safety violations that occurred at the site where an NS train derailed on Feb. 3 in East Palestine, Ohio. Several days following the derailment, NS and state and local officials had decided to vent a tank car carrying vinyl chloride over concern that the car was in danger of exploding.

On Friday, NS said it would be providing $500,000 as part of a grant to foster economic development in East Palestine. This would be on top of other significant funding to support the community.

FRA cites 4 areas where NS could improve its safety culture

Although NS (NYSE: NSC) has taken steps to beef up its safety practices, there are four general areas where it needs to improve, FRA said.

“Based on its assessment of NS’ safety culture and operational safety, FRA found the overall safety culture maturity at NS to be in the involving level, although individual NS safety culture elements may be leading or lagging in maturity,” FRA said in the report. “This middle level of safety culture maturity reflects both the positive changes and renewed commitment shown by NS’ leadership to improve safety as well as the areas where NS continues to operate in a manner that is reactive and focused on compliance with minimum safety requirements of federal regulations and industry standards.”

One area is ensuring that communication is open and effective, according to FRA. Effective communication includes eliminating gaps and delays in the way NS responds to wayside detector alerts and alarms, as well as developing ways to improve the flow of information through the company.

Another area for improvement involves fostering mutual trust between the company and NS employees via measures such as developing ways to ensure prompt and public responses to safety concerns and engaging with employees about how to improve trust and morale.

A third area is to ensure that training and resources support company safety efforts. This includes providing training to front-line supervisors so that they can have leadership skills and feel “empowered to do their jobs.”

And the fourth area is to develop a safety culture that is less reactive and more proactive and less focused on complying with the minimum in safety standards. This includes potentially implementing risk reduction and fatigue management programs.

NS said in a statement that it welcomed FRA’s report. NS President and CEO Alan Shaw as well as other company leaders met with FRA Administrator Amit Bose on Tuesday to review the findings, according to the company.

“We are a safe railroad driven to become even safer. To learn, we have to listen. It’s important to understand where the FRA believes we can do better, and we appreciate that they identified positive areas where we are already making progress,” Shaw said in a Wednesday release. “We want feedback from our regulators, from the unions that represent our craft colleagues, and from outside our industry like the consultants we’ve hired with deep safety experience from Atkins Nuclear Secured.”

Shaw added that the railroad had sent the report to Atkins Nuclear Secured and will continue working on NS’ six-point safety plan. NS had announced in May that Atkins would be conducting an independent review of NS’ safety culture.

FRA said in the report that it “is committed to assisting NS in reaching its goals to improve safety for the benefit of its operations, employees, and the communities where it operates,” and that the agency will follow up on its recommendations.

The agency conducted the assessment of safety at NS from March 15 to May 15.

Said Greg Regan, president of the union Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO: “We welcome today’s report from the FRA that examines the root causes of safety culture failures at Norfolk Southern, echoing years of concerns from rail workers and unions across the industry. We look forward to working with our federal partners in Congress and the Biden Administration to address these issues and implement strong rail safety reforms.”

OSHA, NS and BMWED reach settlement over alleged safety violations

Also on Wednesday, OSHA said it, NS and BMWED had reached a settlement agreement in which NS has agreed to address several safety issues related to the train derailment, which consisted of a 49 rail car pileup, including 11 tank cars with hazardous chemicals. The chemicals ignited and the pileup burned for several days.

NS agreed to the following:

  • “Implement a medical surveillance program for all affected employees who worked at the derailment site.
  • “Provide union employees with 40 hours of Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response training for future derailments.
  • “Create a training program on lessons learned from the Ohio derailment.
  • “Pay penalties assessed by OSHA for four safety and health violations.”

“This agreement will improve the safety and health controls in place for Norfolk Southern employees who responded and help educate the rail operator’s employees on the lessons learned so they are prepared should another emergency occur,” OSHA Area Office Director Howard Eberts said in a release. “We are pleased by the collaborative safety and health efforts of Norfolk Southern Corp., Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division and contractors from the clean-up site who have been working together on this site remediation.”

Penalties assessed by OSHA totaled $49,111.

“The health and safety of our employees is paramount, and we have worked closely with OSHA and BMWED throughout the investigation. Partnering with our craft colleagues is extremely important to us,” NS said in a statement. “We’ve reached a resolution that provides more training for our people, exceeding OSHA requirements, and makes our responses even safer. We’ve been clear in our goal to become the gold standard for safety in our industry, and this outcome furthers that mission.”

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