On Monday, November 10, members of the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition spoke out against dangerous and unhealthy working conditions at a passenger train (railcar) factory in Rochelle, Illinois owned by Nippon Sharyo. The coalition held a press conference outside the Ogilvie Transportation Center and Metra station in downtown Chicago to announce the filing of U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) complaint.
The complaint details reports from Nippon workers of broken scaffolding that has caused worker falls and injuries, poor ventilation for those working with flammable chemicals and unsafe moving procedures for railcars. Workers also raised serious concerns about exposure to hexavalent chromium, a known cancer causing agent. The coalition requested that OSHA conduct a wall-to-wall site inspection, while asking the agency to keep names and identifying information of current employees confidential to prevent retaliation by Nippon Sharyo.
“I’ve seen my coworker’s injuries after they’ve fallen from scaffolding and then seen Nippon discipline them for their injury, instead of fixing the scaffolding,” said one of the current Nippon Sharyo employees who signed the OSHA complaint.
Nippon Sharyo is a large global company that employs about 400 workers in its railcar assembly plant in Rochelle, a town in rural western Illinois, manufacturing passenger trains for Metra and other U.S. public transit agencies. Nippon Sharyo received $4.7 Million in grants, tax credits and training money from the State of Illinois to open the Rochelle factory, and the company has been awarded $1.3 billion worth of contracts with U.S. public transit agencies in the past six years.
“We are proud to support the current and former workers who filed this OSHA complaint against Nippon Sharyo, and our community stands behind them 100 percent” said Susan Hurley, Executive Director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. “We ask the public who rides these Metra cars to support the workers who are blowing the whistle on unsafe conditions. It’s time to make this Nippon Sharyo factory safe before more people are hurt.”
“I decided to file this OSHA complaint because I don’t want to witness another coworker get hurt and because the next one to get hurt could be me,” said another Nippon Sharyo employee.
Several current and former Nippon Sharyo employees filed the OSHA complaint on October 22, 2014 and OSHA has since opened an investigation at the plant, but it was made public on Monday for the first time. Several whistleblowers who signed the complaint and are speaking with OSHA investigators declined to speak publicly because of fear of retaliation. Nippon Sharyo recently held mandatory meetings at the Rochelle factory and warned workers that if they talked to a government official, they could be liable for perjury if they misrepresented anything. The OSHA complaint details several instances of Nippon Sharyo’s retaliation against workers who were vocal about dangerous conditions or injured on the job.
“All workers are entitled to fair wages, safe working conditions, and dignity and respect in the workplace,” said Bob Reiter, Secretary-Treasurer, Chicago Federation of Labor. “When a company is subsidized by tax dollars, it makes these rights that much more important. Today we call on Nippon Sharyo to make its Illinois factory safe for its more than 400 employees by providing the proper equipment and protective clothing workers need to complete their jobs safely and efficiently.”
At the press conference, Jobs to Move America coalition members wore dust masks and respirators and showed pictures of lungs effected by chromium poisoning, underscoring Nippon Sharyo workers’ concerns about inadequate safety equipment and ventilation. Nippon Sharyo welders are told to wear the same respirators for three days, but can sense inhalation of toxic particulates after several hours of wearing one. In the past few months, several welders have been given blood tests to measure exposure to Hexavalent Chromium and seen elevated levels. Hexavalent Chromium is the same carcinogenic, toxic chemical Erin Brockovich famously blew the whistle on.
In March 2014, OSHA cited Nippon Sharyo for failing to provide proper ventilation for workers using an extremely flammable chemical, a Serious Violation that could have resulted in death or serious physical harm.
The OSHA complaints also detail lack of fall protection when working atop Nippon Sharyo’s railcars. Workers report broken and unsafe scaffolding and catwalks above the railcars, ladders and planks. “Last November an employee fell through a hole in the planks of scaffolding, and was injured so badly that they needed emergency medical care. The employee suffered broken fingers and extensive bruising,” reads the complaint.
Another unsafe working condition reported by workers involves train-moving procedures inside the Nippon Sharyo factory. “Some of the cars are on dollies and have no brakes, so when workers have to stop them they use a piece of wood cut in a wedge shaped like a large doorstop to stop the car, and a worker has to run out on the track and place the wood by hand on the track to try and stop the car. Workers are worried that this practice, when combined with insufficient staffing for a move, could result in a worker losing a hand in this process,” reads an excerpt from the complaint.
“The numerous concerns raised by the workers in this OSHA complaint appear quite serious,” said Marsha Love, an instructor at the Department of Occupational & Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health. “There is a well-established protocol from OSHA about how employers must protect workers from hazards.”