Labor union presses railroads on additional coronavirus measures

A photograph of two locomotive engines. Two men are standing in front of the locomotives.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division (BMWED), a U.S. rail labor union affiliated with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, wants the freight railroads to privately mandate the testing and tracing of the COVID-19 virus among employees after the recent deaths of several members.

“The pandemic is not slowing nationally. Numbers are rising and the death toll is increasing. We understand that train service must continue. We remain willing — as always — to work to that goal,” BMWED said. “But, we will not be sacrificial pawns to railroads who resist implementing screening and tracing procedures that would greatly help control COVID-19 spread. We are not going to continue to have our members die.”

The group sent letters last week to the heads of the seven Class I railroads, pressing the executives to consider implementing stricter measures that would ensure that sick workers aren’t on the job. These measures include prescreening tools such as temperature checking and symptom assessments, contact tracing, quarantines of employees who were exposed to infected co-workers, and regular testing of employees.

The letters come after four BMWED members have died from the coronavirus. The group didn’t say where the members worked. BMWED said it sent similar letters to Amtrak and the Metra commuter railroads in June.

“The safety and well-being of railroad workers is a mutual interest between the Railroad and the BMWED. Should you desire the BMWED’s leadership is ready to meet immediately to work collaboratively. … The BMWED members will continue to show up for America and perform this essential service. In the same way, the railroad needs to start showing up for the workers and the public by ensuring that they take all necessary steps and protocols to protect them from this life-threatening disease,” said BMWED President Freddie N. Simpson in letters to the railroads.

The letter also included a 13-page white paper on suggested federal guidelines that the railroads could consider.

The railroads’ responses

The railroads and the unions have conducted conference calls daily on best practices, according to the Association of American Railroads

Individual railroad companies also said they have implemented safety protocols.

Kansas City Southern

“Since March 2020, [Kansas City Southern (NYSE: KSU)] KCS has and continues to follow appropriate guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention, also known as CDC] and the Mexican government for the safety and well-being of essential railroad workers. Accordingly, many of the requests made in the BMWED’s letter are consistent with practices already in place at KCS.  We continue to engage in open dialogue with union representation,” KCS told FreightWaves.

Union Pacific

Union Pacific (NYSE: UNP) said, “We continue to follow CDC recommendations and are taking steps to keep employees safe and healthy. Many of the things referenced in the letter have been in place since the start of the pandemic. We also continue to have an open dialog with our union representatives.”


BNSF (NYSE: BRK) responded, “From the outset of the pandemic, we’ve had two main objectives: Protect the health of our employees and keep trains running. As the situation and environment around us has evolved, we have continued to evolve with it. We’ve grounded all of our decisions in CDC guidance and made adjustments to our policies and protocols to protect the health of our employees and the integrity of our operations.”

BNSF continued, “We acted quickly to implement the necessary precautions to protect health and safety including additional cleaning protocols and sufficient cleaning supplies, requiring face coverings where social distancing isn’t possible and response protocols for employees testing positive that not only protect the health of the employee but also those employees who may have been close contacts. This includes quarantine periods and self-assessment before returning to work in consult with our medical team.”

BNSF concluded, “Frequent testing is essential to controlling the spread of COVID-19 and we have diligently worked to secure testing access for our employees in the 28 states in which BNSF operates.” 


CSX (NASDAQ: CSX) said, “CSX railroaders have continued to ensure essential goods are getting to American consumers, and the company has followed all CDC recommendations and preventative measures since the start of the pandemic. We provide masks, gloves and cleaning supplies to all employees and have significantly increased sanitation of high-touch, high-traffic areas across our network. We are closely monitoring the virus and remain in constant communication with our employees, union representatives, customers, and vendors.”

Norfolk Southern

Norfolk Southern (NYSE: NSC) responded, “Ensuring every Norfolk Southern employee goes home safe every night is a responsibility we always take seriously. Well before COVID-19 evolved into a global pandemic, we were responsive, flexible and transparent. We launched our Pandemic Taskforce, acted quickly based on CDC guidelines and took extensive measures to keep employees safe. We have implemented physical distancing, required the use of face coverings when physical distancing is not possible, and established rigorous cleaning protocols.”

NS continued, “When we learn of an employee who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, we conduct contact tracing, alert employees potentially exposed and require them to quarantine as necessary. We have a hotline for employees to notify us of any health or safety concerns so we can address them. All of these measures are communicated as part of open dialogue with our employee unions, and remain in place as we continue to monitor cases of COVID-19 to protect the health of our employees, their families and people in the  communities we serve. 


Canadian railway CN (NYSE: CNI) said it deployed a multiphase pandemic plan in March that included measures such as increasing social distancing, requiring self-isolation for employees exhibiting symptoms, and conducting “amplified” cleaning regimens on trains and in terminals, bunkhouses and offices, among other measures.

“CN is a responsible global corporation with over 25,000 employees, and we are taking all necessary steps to protect our employees, the communities in which we operate and our customers, vendors and partners and their employees, in response to the unprecedented challenges associated with the coronavirus (COVID-19),” CN said.

CN also said its staff medical team and occupational health department “are playing a pivotal role in our pandemic planning. They are fully aligned and take direction from the World Health Organization, as well as provincial, state and federal authorities as required. They are also a member of the Association of American Railroad Health Committee.”

Click here for more FreightWaves articles by Joanna Marsh.

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