On October 22, 2007 a union representative filed a complaint with OSHA about the working conditions and the potential for toxic employee exposures at Norfolk Southern’s Juniata shop in Altoona, PA. In response to the complaint, OSHA sent investigators to inspect the railroad shop.
Some of the fumes from welding operations are incredibly hazardous. Both OSHA and Norfolk Southern tested the area of the traction motor shop and found amounts of certain welding fume components, including hexavalent chromium, copper and manganese over the permissible limits. While the railroad stated they were attempting to find ways to reduce the air levels of these chemicals, at that time they were relying on their employees to wear respirators to avoid breathing in these excessive quantities.
One of the biggest disagreements between the railroad and OSHA was about employee training. In order to be effective, a respiratory protection program must inform people of the dangerousness of what they are around, and ensure that they understand how to use the equipment they are given. Employees who are adequately trained and understand how to protect themselves do so. Employees who don’t understand the dangerousness of what that they are working around may not feel any sense of urgency to comply with rules or regulations intended to keep them safe.
Contained within the OSHA document is a copy of the railroad’s training slide show. Importantly, for both welding fumes and Hexavalent Chromium, the presentation seems to downplay the more serious risks of inhaling the chemicals:
Hexavalent Chromium was determined by IARC to be carcinogenic to humans in 1990, approximately 17 years prior to this OSHA violation. Welding fumes are currently determined to be carcinogenic, but were also considered to be “possibly carcinogenic” and requiring more research in 1990. Raising doubts about the risks of a substance does not inspire people to protect themselves. Further, if a worker develops cancer later – they might never realize that the cancer could be work related.
Coincidentally, the railroad also had a training program a mere 2 weeks before the inspection. Importantly, OSHA spoke with the employees about their experiences before that fresh training and each employee independently verified that prior to that date, they had been using the provided respirators without any specific training despite the fact that such training was required by OSHA safety regulations.
Appearing compliant might get OSHA fines reduced, as they did here, but the workers suffer and are placed at increased risk of developing cancer, sometimes years or decades after such hazardous exposures. Our office is committed to representing railroad workers who have developed cancer as a result of exposures to welding fumes, asbestos, diesel exhaust and other substances. We understand how to evaluate documents like these to show the flaws in the various railroads’ policies. A respiratory protection program that doesn’t adequately warn of hazards, or doesn’t actually teach people how to use respiratory protection equipment is not effective, and it is not the railroad worker’s fault that they didn’t know how harmful their workplace was.
If you or a family member are a railroad worker with cancer, who was exposed to toxic substances such as welding fumes, asbestos, solvents or diesel exhaust at work, please contact us for a free consultation.