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Rail-car manufacturing workers claim unsafe conditions

Workers at rail-car plant say they lack basic safety equipment.

Employees of a rail-car manufacturing plant in Rochelle, Ill., that has received millions of dollars in grants, training funds and tax incentives from state and local governments claim their working conditions are unsafe.

Nippon Sharyo, which was fined this year for a "serious" safety violation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, is the subject of a more recent investigation by the agency, the result of complaints filed in October.

Officials at Nippon Sharyo did not return calls seeking comment.

The facility about 80 miles west of Chicago makes Metra trains and employs more than 400 people.

Workers allege they lack basic safety equipment and that some have fallen and been injured as a result of broken equipment such as scaffolding. They also expressed concern about exposure to dangerous chemicals, according to Jobs to Move America, a coalition that includes labor, environmental and community groups.

In March, OSHA investigators found inadequate ventilation to remove flammable vapors, mists or powders in areas where workers spray-paint parts. The company was fined $4,000; the amount later reduced to $2,000. OSHA is a part of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Scott Allen, a spokesman with the Labor Department, said OSHA frequently considers reducing penalties to ensure safety issues are quickly abated to protect workers. Fines range up to $70,000 per violation, depending on the company's size and its safety record, he said.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers also has filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging the company has interrogated, threatened and fired workers to discourage them from union membership.

Jobs to Move America and the Chicago Federation of Labor said they plan to air complaints about the company at a demonstration Monday afternoon in downtown Chicago.

To lure Nippon Sharyo's manufacturing facility to Illinois, various governmental units, including the city of Rochelle, ponied up more than $11 million in incentives. The state in 2010 offered more than $4.7 million in a package that included training funds, grants and corporate income tax credits over 10 years. The Illinois Department of Transportation kicked in another $5.5 million to build a rail spur from the BNSF Railway mainline to the new factory, and Rochelle offered more than $800,000 in incentives, including property tax abatements, sales tax exemptions and grants.

In return, Nippon Sharyo pledged to create at least 250 jobs in Illinois and to retain 15 workers from its office in Arlington Heights.

acancino@tribune.com

Twitter @WriterAlejandra

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