Norfolk Southern arms for battle against COVID-19 to protect employees and keep the trains moving
At a Norfolk Southern distribution center in Dayton, Ohio, trucks load up with repair parts for rail cars and locomotives and head out on daily “milk runs” to resupply mechanical shops across the railroad’s network.
These days, the trucks are transporting another critical cargo: hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and disinfectant sprays and wipes. After arriving at the shops, operations managers sort and deliver these supplies to the field, arming rail yards, terminals, and other operating facilities with supplies effective against COVID-19.
In the battle against the coronavirus, Norfolk Southern is taking extensive steps to protect the health and safety of our workforce as we keep the trains moving and business processes flowing. The men and women responsible for keeping the steel wheels rolling are working on the front lines, ensuring food, energy, raw materials, and finished goods reach the American people in this unprecedented time of need. While continuing to serve our customers and move the U.S. economy forward, the railroad’s first line of defense is to help our employees prevent the spread of an invisible enemy.
“We are taking a hard stance on sanitation and cleaning initiatives,” said Jason Eddy, senior director mechanical, based in Cincinnati. “All departments are out boots on the ground looking at the work conditions and cleanliness, whether it’s crew rooms, yardmaster towers, or locomotive cabs. It’s very serious business for us.”
The company began mobilizing forces to combat the novel coronavirus weeks before it began affecting communities across the railroad’s 22-state network. In early March, for example, our Sourcing Department secured an order for 30,000 half-gallon containers of hand sanitizer. That translates to a half-gallon for each NS railroader – with some 2,500 gallons to spare.
“Our supplier had enough raw material to make 15,000 gallons, so we bought it all,” said Jay Medlin, group manager purchasing, based in Norfolk, Virginia. “We didn’t know how long this was going to last or what other supplies might be available. Our employees have always been No. 1 at NS, they are vital to the U.S. supply chain, and nobody wanted to be the person to only buy 5,000 gallons and it not be enough. We wanted to make sure we’d done everything we can to protect our employees.”
Taking action to prevent spread of COVID-19
Among other actions, the company has increased the frequency of cleaning and disinfecting work spaces, implemented social distancing measures, and communicated constantly with employees about what they can do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We’ve ramped up our janitorial services to seven days a week in most places, and our major terminals have gone to twice a day in locations where there’s a lot of foot traffic,” said Floyd Hudson, general manager operations, based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. “In the crew rooms at bigger locations, like Chicago and Toledo, we’re cleaning twice a day to make sure we get better opportunities to sanitize.”
To ensure the safety of train crews, the company has put a special focus on cleaning and disinfecting locomotive cabs against COVID-19. In addition, before boarding, all train and engine crews are provided packs of wipes effective against the virus. In an extra step, NS worked closely with vendors that provide taxi service and lodging for road train crews to ensure they had adequate supplies of hand sanitizer and disinfectants.
Along with cleaning and sanitizing, the railroad has enacted a range of social distancing policies for employees who must report to railroad facilities to perform their jobs. Between work shifts, for example, supervisors avoid face-to-face turnovers. At some locations, NS has staggered shift times for operations employees, allowing them to end their shifts 15 minutes early, with pay, to avoid mixing with co-workers arriving for the next shift. The company adopted that measure at the suggestion of a rail labor union general chairman. “That’s the first time we’ve ever done something like that,” Eddy added.
In office locations, employees performing critical jobs to maintain operations, including train dispatchers, have been separated into different locations to ensure redundancy and also provided work spaces that limit unnecessary exposure to co-workers. Since March 14, all employees able to perform their jobs without reporting to an office have been working remotely.
As an ongoing precaution, NS continues to communicate directly with employees about what to do if they experience coronavirus-like symptoms and the importance of maintaining good personal hygiene to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Everybody knows that the first line of defense is wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and cover your mouth with a tissue or your elbow if you cough or sneeze,” said Tom Schnautz, vice president advanced train control, based in Atlanta.
Collaboration across departments
Coordinated by members of the company’s Pandemic Task Force, work groups across NS have teamed up on efforts to protect the workforce and maintain daily business operations. The groups involved include sourcing, safety and environmental, industrial hygiene, health services, facilities, and the transportation, mechanical, and engineering operations departments.
“We’re doing the right things – we’re keeping up with stock, we’re keeping up with cleaning services,” said Pat Whitehead, vice president transportation.
Early on, to safeguard against shortages, NS’ industrial hygiene group began researching multiple brands of cleaning products to identify those with ingredients effective against COVID-19. This advance work paid off, enabling NS to place bulk orders of one spray disinfectant in 55-gallon drums before the brand appeared on the CDC’s list of approved products – and well before a surge in demand began creating shortages.
“We recognized there would be a run on these materials because that’s predictable – you see it not only on the industry side but on the consumer side as well,” said Mark Dudle, NS occupational safety director, based in Atlanta. “We wanted to be ahead of that.”
NS’ Mechanical Department leadership suggested taking advantage of the company’s existing parts distribution network as a cost-effective way to quickly get cleaning supplies to the field. Doing so gives the company total control of the process, ensuring that all locations across the system have enough to go around.
“Norfolk Southern is standing up and fighting the fight against COVID-19,” said Jamie Williams, senior director mechanical operations and support, based in Atlanta. “All of our departments are in this together, and we are taking ownership of it to support the needs of our employees.”