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Indiana health agencies to inspect railroad camp cars

(The following story by Michael Schroeder appeared on The Journal Gazette website on October 4.)

FORT WAYNE, Ind. — A new state rule – expected to take effect by the end of the year – will require local health departments to inspect rail camp-car systems when they come to town.

The systems have rail cars with everything from sleeping quarters to dining space, but a union official says traveling workers who repair and maintain the rails often live in unsanitary conditions. Some inspections done at his request turned up violations citing problems with food preparation, cleanliness and sewage disposal.

But inspections required by the state, covering everything from sewage disposal to fire safety, will be a tall order for local health departments. Because certain areas are generally inspected by other departments and because camp-car systems move frequently, some think it should be a state job.

Norfolk Southern Corp., which has a camp-car depot near Brooklyn Avenue in Fort Wayne, says it plans to abide by state rules. A company official defended the condition of its mobile camps.

On Monday, Mindy Waldron, administrator for the Fort Wayne-Allen County Department of Health will discuss the camp-car rule with the health board. The rule still needs approval from the Office of the Indiana Attorney General and Gov. Mitch Daniels. An inspection program will then need to be created and a local ordinance, including fee structure, will need to be passed.

“I do support the end-goal of providing better living conditions” for workers, Waldron said. But she thinks the rule would be better enforced at the state level for the sake of consistency and follow-through. “I cannot enforce anything outside of Allen County.”

Waldron said the rule was an unfunded mandate, since no state dollars will go to devising a local inspection program. The program might include contracting with the building department to be part of the inspection team and buying equipment to measure electrical amps and airflow.

The comprehensive 10-page rule requires that the railroad notify the local health department within two days of a mobile camp arriving, and request and permit inspection to ensure that camp cars are safe, sanitary, healthful and in full compliance with the rule. That means meeting myriad standards, from properly disposing of sewage to having clean, working soap dispensers and hand driers and operable heating and air conditioning, depending on the season.

An official with the Indiana State Department of Health, which wrote the rule after legislation requiring it passed in 2007, said the state has equipment to lend to local health departments if they need it for inspections. He thought that money spent to cover up-front costs could be recouped through inspection fees. Waldron wasn’t so sure that could be factored into inspection fees.

Mike Mettler, director of the environmental public health division of the state department of health, was amenable to the state doing inspections. “I think it would be a good service to the counties if we did that,” he said.

But because of the way the rule is currently written, Mettler said, local health departments are expected to do the inspections, though the state will provide training and assistance. Mettler said that the state will work with counties on tracking violations from county-to-county.

The state still has the authority to do camp-car inspections, said Brian Carnes, a legislative director for the state health department. But he said it can’t respond as quickly to requests for inspections as local health departments.

For now, a union official who pushed for mandatory camp-car inspections is hopeful that it will improve conditions for workers.

“These cars are filthy,” said Jeff Bainter, state legislative director for Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Bainter says Norfolk Southern has remodeled camp cars as a result of the new law. He expects it will try to comply with the law now that more attention is being paid to the issue.

Rudy Husband, director of public relations for Norfolk Southern, declined to discuss specific issues raised by Bainter. But he reiterated that the railroad company will comply with the law.

Husband said the camp cars are a better alternative than staying in hotels, a claim heartily disputed by Bainter.

Monday, October 6, 2008

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