Last month, a Norfolk Southern freight train carrying 20 cars filled with hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. After the crash, safety experts decided the best course of action was to carry out a controlled burn of the toxic chemicals inside the cars, to prevent an enormous explosion that they warned would send shrapnel flying for miles around.
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It was a disaster of epic proportions and has since sparked outrage over the handling of the crash and the concerns that were raised in the buildup to the incident. Now, The Guardian has uncovered audio that includes a rail worker being told by their superior to skip certain safety checks that could have uncovered the faulty components that caused February’s rail incident.
According to the outlet, a leaked audio recording heard an employee query their manager about safety checks on wheel bearings. In the clip, the manager is heard telling the employee to stop making such checks and marking cars for repair in order to speed up train times. The site reports:
In late 2016, Stephanie Griffin, a former Union Pacific carman, went to her manager with concerns that she was getting pushback for tagging – or reporting for repair – railcars. Her manager told her it was OK to skip inspections.
Griffin asked if the manager could put that in writing. “That’s weird,” said the manager. “We have 56 other people who are not bad-ordering stuff out there. You’re definitely not going to get in trouble for it.”
Griffin said: “He refused to bad-order [mark for repair] cars for bad wheel bearings. My boss took issue with it because it increased our dwell time. When that happened, corporate offices would start berating management to release the cars.”
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The audio is particularly bad as initial investigations into the Ohio crash have so far found that a faulty wheel bearing could have caused the incident. In the case of the Norfolk Southern derailment, investigators found that wheel bearings on the train were 253°F above ambient temperature in the lead-up to the incident.
The increased temperature on the wheels was detected by hot bearing detectors (HBDs) that lined the train’s route, which should have warned rail workers of the issues onboard. However, Norfolk Southern’s policy to stop trains only when sensors pick up temperatures 170°F or higher meant the issue wasn’t addressed as quickly as it could have been.
What’s more, once rail workers on board did apply the emergency brakes, it came too little too late and the train still crashed.
But could tightening up on safety checks have prevented the disaster in the first place? Well, according to The Guardian report, workers are supposed to check vital components on trains before marking any defective carriage for repair. But, it warned that management, “at the behest of corporate,” went out of its way to undermine workers doing the job. The site adds:
[Griffin] said: “The regulation at the time stated that a wheel bearing was bad when it had ‘visible seepage’. But that was very vague, and the bosses used that vagueness to their advantage. For me, it was whenever oil was visible on the bearing. For my bosses, they wanted actual droplets and proof it would leak on the ground.”
Despite the stark findings from The Guardian’s report, and the news that safety measures on railroads were rolled back during the Trump administration, rail operator Union Pacific made steps to assure the site that “nothing is more important than the safety of Union Pacific employees and the communities we serve.”
In The Guardian’s report, a statement from the rail company said: “Employees are expected and encouraged to report concerns, and have a number of avenues to do so, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline and they are firmly protected from retaliation.”
Of course, the National Transportation Safety Board is still undertaking its investigation into the Norfolk Southern derailment, including focusing on the company’s use of wayside defect detectors, which should have spotted the failed bearing, and its rail car inspection practices.