The National Transportation Safety Board will launch a special investigation looking into the “safety culture” at Norfolk Southern, the agency said Tuesday, and the Federal Railroad Administration plans a review of NS’ safety practices as well.
The investigation comes after an NS conductor sustained fatal injuries early Tuesday at a Cleveland-Cliffs facility in Cleveland. Tuesday’s accident is the fifth significant incident since December 2021, prompting the NTSB probe.
“Given the number and significance of recent Norfolk Southern accidents, the NTSB … urges the company to take immediate action today to review and assess its safety practices, with the input of employees and others, and implement necessary changes to improve safety,” NTSB stated.
The agency has been involved in investigating the five incidents. In addition to Tuesday’s fatality, the Feb. 3 derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and the March 4 derailment in Springfield, Ohio, NTSB investigators are looking into the Dec. 8, 2021, death of a National Salvage and Service Corp. employee who had been assigned to work with an NS team replacing track in Reed, Pennsylvania, and a Dec. 13 incident in which an NS trainee conductor was killed and another conductor injured in an accident involving two NS freight trains in Bessemer, Alabama.
“The continued safe operations of Norfolk Southern is vital to the United States. The NTSB is concerned that several organizational factors may be involved in the accidents, including safety culture. The NTSB will conduct an in-depth investigation into the safety practices and culture of the company,” NTSB said. “At the same time, the company should not wait to improve safety and the NTSB urges it to do so immediately.”
On Monday, NS released a six-point safety plan, effective immediately, that seeks to implement and better integrate safety technologies on its network.
In response to Tuesday’s events, NS President and CEO Alan Shaw said in a release: “As has now been widely reported, one of our Norfolk Southern colleagues was fatally injured overnight in a tragic accident on the job. Louis Shuster, a conductor from Broadview Heights, Ohio, was struck by a dump truck as his train moved through a rail crossing at the Cleveland-Cliffs Cleveland Works facility.
“I went to Cleveland as soon as I heard the tragic news. At our Rockport Yard, I talked with several railroaders who worked with Lou, as he was known. They shared stories about an individual who was respected and liked by his colleagues. This is an awful day that leaves a hole in our company’s spirit. We have reached out to Lou’s family to offer our condolences. We will give them time to grieve, and we will be there with support for anything they need.
“The cause of the accident is not yet known, and we will of course cooperate fully with the National Transportation Safety Board. In some ways, the cause does not matter. I called together every member of our management team this afternoon to emphasize the urgency of finding new solutions. Tomorrow we will hold safety stand-down briefings reaching every employee across our network.
“Moving forward, we are going to rebuild our safety culture from the ground up. We are going to invest more in safety. This is not who we are, it is not acceptable, and it will not continue.”
FRA to conduct ‘supplemental safety assessment’ of NS’ operations
On the heels of NTSB’s announcement, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the Federal Railroad Administration will conduct a 60-day supplemental safety assessment of NS’ operations.
FRA will review a 2022 NS system audit and revisit the recommendations the agency made to NS as well as NS’ responses. FRA will also look at items such as practices for conducting maintenance, inspection and repair of track, signal and rolling stock; protection of employees working on rail infrastructure, locomotives and cars; and communications between transportation departments and mechanical and engineering staff.
“Information collected through the supplemental safety assessment will exceed the scope of existing FRA audits, providing a more expansive look at Norfolk Southern’s overall safety culture and operations. The information gathered will be used to target specific areas for FRA’s oversight and enforcement efforts and help identify risks beyond the reach of current federal regulations,” FRA said. “Finally, FRA will use the information collected to push Norfolk Southern to develop measures to mitigate risks while identifying appropriate enforcement actions.”
FRA will release a report after it completes the assessment.
“After a series of derailments and the death of one of its workers, we are initiating this further supplemental safety review of Norfolk Southern, while also calling on Norfolk Southern to act urgently to improve its focus on safety so the company can begin earning back the trust of the public and its employees,” Buttigieg said in a release. “This comes as [the U.S. Department of Transportation] continues its own urgent actions to further improve freight rail safety and accountability.”
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