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Hero Rail Workers: The Safety Side You Never See

With specialized training and dangerous work, railroad workers choose a high-risk lifestyle, not a job

spinner image a welder in safety gear working on a rail
Tristan Savatier/Getty Images

In February 2023, a 150-car Norfolk Southern freight train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, near the Pennsylvania border, reportedly the result of wheels overheating. Twenty of the 38 cars that spilled off the track contained hazardous materials. Some of the derailed cars caught fire, billowing smoke into the air. Others spilled their loads into an adjacent ditch whose waters eventually empty into the Ohio River.

State and federal officials ordered a controlled burn to get rid of the waste — liquid and gas products used for making plastics, packaging, and electronics. Amazingly, no one died or was injured. Cleanup is still ongoing today.

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While one accident is one too many, the type of scenario found in East Palestine is rare. Railcars carried 2.3 million carloads of hazardous materials in 2022 across nearly 140,000-plus miles of American track, with 99.9 percent of the plastics, fertilizers and other chemicals arriving safely at their destination, according to the Association of American Railroads. ​This incredible record is thanks in part to the special training of rail workers tasked with the job of transporting these materials.​

Ever since their birth nearly 200 years ago, railroads have played a key role in the American way of life. The transition from stagecoach to rail made travel across the U.S. cheaper, quicker and more comfortable. Perhaps most of all, the railroad helped to create a sense of national pride — serving as a symbol of American potential and ingenuity.

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In 2023, the rail transportation industry is smaller than it once was, but still 135,000 strong. Locomotive engineers, rail car repairers, track layers, brake and signal operators, railroad conductors, and yardmasters all work to transport the 1.6 billion tons of freight transported each year. ​

Of all the hazardous cargo freight carried across the U.S. on trains each year, the accident rate tends to be low. Nonetheless, railroad workers face precarious conditions in their work environment. They also require special training. ​

Paul, who asked not to use his last name, has worked for two major railroads over the last 16 years: first as a freight conductor, and currently as a locomotive engineer. He said conductor school and engineering training each require two months of class, followed by up to six months of on-the-job training. Certifications are valid for three years. Conductors must undergo a driver's license check and testing to get recertified. ​

Then, for hazardous cargo, there are additional training requirements required by the federal government. Susan Komen, the safety and training coordinator for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response (HAZWOPER) program, told AARP that training is key to safety on the rails. All rail employees handling hazardous materials must receive OSHA’s “general awareness/familiarization training,” which provides an overview of hazardous materials regulations (HMR) and the dangers of hazardous materials. Other workers receive additional job-specific training. In addition to the OSHA training, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) oversees all aspects of railroad safety. ​ ​“For every OHSA rule, we have 10 more rules on top of that one,” Paul said. ​

Being a rail transportation worker is not for the faint of heart. Here are some other distinguishing characteristics of the rail workers managing hazardous materials throughout America.​

1. They put their lives on the line​

In 1983, OSHA issued the Hazardous Communication Standard (HCS) requiring employers to train their employees on the handling of the dangerous chemicals they are exposed to in loading, offloading and transport. OSHA’s efforts have saved lives, said Komen. A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) found that asbestos-related deaths among railroad workers decreased by 80 percent between 1980 and 2000. ​While modern safety and training requirements have made the rail industry safer, Paul said that rail workers still risk their lives every day. “We work in a very unforgiving environment,” he said.​

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2. Track workers get no reprieve ​

Clark, who also asked not to share his last name, is a former track worker who currently serves in the administration at a train union. His workers handle track maintenance and construction, and are tasked with reconstruction after derailments, such as the recent incident in East Palestine. ​

“There are no close calls on the railroad,” he said, explaining that a track worker’s mistake can be fatal, for instance, by igniting a spark that lights up a tank on a welding truck. Tim, Clark’s father and a retired railroad welder, said not only is there the danger of doing high-temperature welding around flammable chemicals but also there is the challenge of repairing a track right next to a second, live track that could have had a train coming at any moment. Tim said that one coworker had been killed and another lost his leg from oncoming trains.​

3. Families pay a price​

Both Paul and Tim shared that rail work is very trying on the family. “I tell people that rail work is not a job, but a lifestyle. You will miss birthdays, holidays, barbecue weekends, kids’ ballgames — and sleep,” Paul said. ​

Tim added, “You never know when you will be called, and you never know when you will be coming back home.”​

4. Work has its rewards​

Paul and Tim both said they chose high-risk railroad work in spite of the dangers and the toll on their family life because the pay was great and allowed them to provide for their families. Tim said he enjoyed the challenge of fixing things and the satisfaction of getting the trains moving again. He added that the excellent pay allowed him and his wife to enjoy the trip of a lifetime to Kenya. ​

One joy of being a locomotive engineer, Paul said, is “having a bunch of kids running up to wave at you and wanting you to blow the horn.” ​

So the next time you hear of an accident on the rails, consider all the stories you never had to hear.​

Share your experience: Does you know someone who works for the railroads? What do they think of the job? Tell us in the comments below?

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