The Dutch Railways have for years neglected the health of many employees in the workshops of the railway company.

    Hundreds, possibly thousands of painters, welders, fitters, cleaners and other workers have probably been exposed to the harmful substance chromium-6 in recent decades. It had long been known within NS that the chromium-containing paint is very harmful to health. While one department no longer bought paint containing the rust-inhibiting chromium-6, other departments still had to sand and weld trains and train parts painted with the sickening paint for years.

    This is evident from a Tuesday presented research by the RIVM into the working conditions of NS technical staff between 1970 and 2020. The study, which has been running since 2015 and has only just been completed due to the pandemic, focused specifically on exposure to the toxic and carcinogenic chromium-6 at a large number of maintenance locations of the rail company.

    The NS had asked for the investigation after a commotion arose in 2014 about the use of paint with chromium-6, among other things, in parts of the Ministry of Defence. President-director Wouter Koolmees apologized on Tuesday morning for the negligence of NS and for the suffering and uncertainty among employees and former employees. He announced one financial scheme for employees and former employees. It is still unknown how much money NS will cost.

    Shocking image

    The RIVM study into chromium-6 at NS paints a shocking picture of the way in which the railway company has dealt with the health of its employees since 1970. “NS employees are exposed to more chromium-6 than if NS had complied with the applicable safety regulations,” said the RIVM researchers on Tuesday morning. In this way, maintenance workers have run a much greater risk of becoming ill than necessary.

    The mentality prevailed in the workplace that the work had to be completed as quickly as possible, write the RIVM researchers. “This could be at the expense of working safely in accordance with the applicable occupational health and safety rules. As a result, employees sometimes had the feeling that they had to work under unsafe and unhealthy conditions.”

    According to the RIVM, NS employees also believed that it was not appreciated if they said something about this to their managers. “If someone refused work because it took place without sufficient protection, a colleague was asked to take over this work,” the RIVM report says.

    Exactly how many employees of the railway company have been exposed to the harmful substance and to what extent, and how many people have become ill due to working with chromium-6 is not known. NS has not kept any personnel data longer than the statutory period of seven years. However, the RIVM states that from 1970 about half of the employees were ‘probably’ or ‘possibly’ exposed to chromium-6 by inhalation. NS currently employs 1,500 people in technical maintenance positions.

    Read also: Chromium-6 is still the best protector against rust

    Serious health risks

    Chromium-6 is a form of the metal chromium. When applied as a layer to metal, chromium-6 protects against corrosion. For that reason it was an important ingredient of anti-corrosion (primer) paint – even though non-toxic alternatives have been available for years. Companies are now only allowed to use paint containing chromium-6 with special permission.

    Since the 1970s, the use of chromium-6 has been known to pose serious health risks. Those who inhale, ingest or get chromium-6 on their skin can develop various forms of cancer, serious lung diseases and allergies and other conditions.

    Not only the railways and the armed forces have used paint containing chromium-6 for decades. The airline KLM also used it for a long time to protect aircraft against corrosion. Chrome-6 paint has also been used for years on bridges and public works of art. For example, the carcinogenic substance was found two years ago on the Waal Bridge in Nijmegen. The renovation of the bridge was therefore 25 million euros more expensive than budgeted.

    At NS, primers containing chromium-6 were present on almost all steel train parts in the 1970s and 1980s, according to research by the RIVM. After that, the use was gradually phased out, but anyone who still works on old train equipment runs the risk of encountering older paint layers with chromium-6. According to NS, the chance of health problems is small to negligible, because extra safety measures are now being taken.

    Information not shared

    It had been known within NS since the end of the 1970s that chromium-6 entailed serious health risks. NS is said to have already decided in the 1980s not to use new paint with chromium-6. That information was not sufficiently shared with other departments.

    The research shows that (former) employees mainly came into contact with chromium-6 because they inhaled dust that was released when they worked on old paint layers, such as during sanding and welding. This exposure was higher than when applying new paint layers with chromium-6. Few measures have been taken to reduce exposure, such as through exhaust systems.

    The trade union FNV calls the investigation “shocking” in a response. The union denounces the poor safety policy of the rail company. For example, measurement data on chromium-6 use were not kept for decades, nothing was registered, although this is mandatory, there were no risk inventories and improvement plans, and there were no good personal protective equipment.

    Trade union FNV calls the investigation “shocking” and denounces the poor security policy

    The union also points out that the Labor Inspectorate has never investigated chromium-6 at NS. Moreover, the FNV endorses RIVM’s conclusion that the occupational physician should have played a greater role in monitoring healthy working conditions. Since 1995, NS’s own occupational health service was scrapped and the rail company hired external company doctors, who were mainly concerned with reducing absenteeism, according to the RIVM.

    The financial arrangement that NS announced on Tuesday morning for victims and surviving relatives resembles the arrangement that the Ministry of Defense set up a few years ago for chromium-6 victims. This involved one-off and illness-related amounts of between 5,000 and 40,000 euros. NS calls on victims to report on a special website. KLM also announced a scheme last month for employees who have worked with chromium-6.

    This is not the first time that the Dutch Railways has been confronted with the harmful consequences of the use of chromium-6. Between 2004 and 2011, dozens of people became ill from working on museum trains as part of a reintegration project for welfare recipients in Tilburg. It was a project of the municipality of Tilburg and NS subsidiary NedTrain.

    At the time, eight hundred people sanded and painted trains that – as it turned out – were painted with chromium-6-containing paint. The victims have now received compensation of several thousand euros. The case is not yet concluded. Next month, a criminal case will be brought against the municipality of Tilburg and NedTrain, because they have insufficiently ensured a safe working environment for the eight hundred benefit recipients.