Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday November 10th, 2014, 3:30pm

Worker Advocates Protest 'Unsafe' Conditions At Nippon Sharyo Rail Car Manufacturing Factory

Worker advocates are sounding the alarm on "dangerous" and "unhealthy" working conditions at Nippon Sharyo's passenger train factory in Rochelle, Illinois.

Employees at the Rochelle plant -- which has received millions in grants, tax credits and training money from the state -- build railcars for Metra and other public transit agencies.

With the help of the AFL-CIO, current and former factory employees filed a complaint last month with the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), alleging that workers "are exposed to serious, unsafe conditions on an ongoing basis."

Members of Chicago Jobs With Justice, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Illinois Jobs to Move America coalition denounced the working conditions cited in the recently-filed, multiple count OSHA complaint during a protest Monday afternoon at Chicago's Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center. The workers themselves did not attend the protest due to fears of employer retaliation, organizers said.

The Rochelle rail car assembly plant, which is comprised of two buildings, allegedly lacks basic safety equipment; adequate respiratory protection for welders exposed to potential chromium poisoning; ventilation for flammable materials; and fall protections for employees working atop rail cars, the complaint says. OSHA is currently investigating the allegations leveled against the company by eight current and two former workers, according to organizers.

"Workers are facing potentially life-threatening toxic environments inside the Nippon Sharyo plant, and this is totally and completely unacceptable," said Susan Hurley, executive director of Chicago Jobs with Justice. "We want to create good manufacturing jobs here in Illinois. We want that plant up and operational in Rochelle, Illinois, but we are not willing to sacrifice having the job for a safe, quality job."

According to the complaint, several rail car welders have allegedly been tested for chromium poisoning, and blood test results for multiple workers have showed high levels of the human carcinogen Hexavalent Chromium, which is associated with lung cancer.

"Workers are currently being provided with masks, but Nippon Sharyo is asking that workers reuse them for three days before they can ask for new masks," said Linda Nguyen-Perez, a senior research and policy analyst for the Jobs to Move America Project. "One worker has reported that particulate is able to penetrate these masks before even the end of a full work day."

Another alleged workplace hazard is faulty scaffolding, which has resulted in falls and injuries, the complaint states. Last November, a worker was injured and needed emergency medical care after falling through a hole in the planks of scaffolding, according to the complaint.

"The employee suffered broken fingers and extensive bruising," the document adds. "Nippon Sharyo management indicated to the worker that the accident was their fault, and issued [the worker] a warning. Nonetheless, managers announced that they would begin painting the boards to improve safety following the accident, but workers report this has not been done and the scaffolding continues to be dangerous to walk on."

Some factory employees have allegedly been fired or written up by management after reporting dangerous conditions or requesting appropriate protective gear, according to the complaint and worker advocates.

A Nippon Sharyo representative declined to answer specific questions for this story, citing the ongoing OSHA investigation. The company did, however, issue this statement to Progress Illinois:

Nippon Sharyo has invested over $100,000,000 in Rochelle through its two factories and the long-term job stability it provides to its over 500 employees. It has had contracts with 246 Illinois based companies for their goods and services, of which 150 are the companies Nippon Sharyo has started doing business in last 3 years. Nippon Sharyo's goal has always been to be one of the best places to work. It pays competitive wages and provides excellent benefits. Nippon Sharyo has an open door policy and respects the rights of the employees.

This is not the first time Nippon Sharyo's Rochelle facility has come under fire for workplace safety issues.

In March, OSHA fined Nippon Sharyo for a "serious" safety violation after inspectors found the plant lacked adequate ventilation to remove flammable vapors, mists or powders in spraying areas. OSHA initially fined the company $4,000, but later reduced the penalty to $2,000. The case has since been settled and is now closed.

Bob Reiter, secretary treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, noted that Nippon Sharyo received $4.7 million in state support to open the Rochelle factory. Additionally, the company has landed $1.3 billion in contracts with U.S. public transit agencies in the past six years, Reiter said.

"This company is building publicly-funded transit equipment worth billions of dollars, so why can't they give workers safety masks," he asked.

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