Railroad workers are among many people who are at risk of exposure to asbestos in the course of doing their jobs. Asbestos exposure can cause disabling or fatal diseases such as asbestosis, lung cancer, gastrointestinal cancer and mesothelioma, a form of asbestos cancer that affects the membranes covering the lungs in it’s most common form (Pleural mesothelioma) and other body organs in more rare types. From 1990 to 1999, the fourth most frequently listed industry recorded on U.S. death certificates of asbestosis victims age 15 and older was railroads
The term “railroad worker” encompasses a number of different occupations, including engineers, yardmasters, brake operators, hostlers and conductors. It also includes the people who manufacture locomotives and railroad cars and those who work in rail yards loading and unloading freight cars. Job duties which may pose a risk of asbestos exposure are checking the mechanical condition of locomotives; driving engines within industrial plants, mines and quarries, and construction projects; coupling and uncoupling cars; installing, maintaining, and repairing the signals on tracks and in yards; loading and unloading asbestos-containing freight; and adding and removing cars at railroad stations and assembling and disassembling trains in railroad yards.
Because of its well-known use as a fire-retardant and heat insulator, asbestos was used in the production of boiler and pipe insulation, high-temperature gaskets and brake and clutch linings. It was used to insulate steam locomotives and some diesels, and asbestos-containing insulation was used around rail cars, refrigeration units, pipes, and steam and hot water lines. It was also common in packing, rope, cement, and in heavy-duty floor tiles for passenger cars.
Railroad workers who installed, removed or inspected insulation were often heavily exposed to asbestos. During locomotive inspections, asbestos insulation was sometimes stripped off the boilers in a process that could let asbestos dust become airborne in the shop. The same would often happen when the asbestos was reapplied. Railroad mechanics were routinely exposed to asbestos when they inspected, repaired or replaced brake and clutch linings. Because asbestos fibers are microscopic and extremely light, they can remain airborne for an extended period, which means that even railroad workers who did not handle asbestos products directly ran the risk of exposure.
In 2006, the North Carolina Court of Appeals unanimously upheld a multimillion dollar verdict on behalf of a former railroad worker. Ray Williams filed a Federal Employers’ Liability Act claim against CSX after being diagnosed with mesothelioma, alleging that the railroad frequently exposed him to asbestos and asbestos-containing materials during his nearly 40-year career, and did so without adequately informing him of the hazards. Williams died during the case but his widow continued it. The lower court jury found that CSX knew of asbestos dangers as well as the safety precautions that could have been used to protect employees from exposure as early as 1930s. The jury also found that CSX learned about the link between asbestos and lung cancer in the 1960s, but again didn’t take any measures to protect its employees, continuing to use asbestos products into the 1990s. The jury found CSX negligent. The appeals court denied CSX’s motion for an appeal, finding that the evidence presented in the case justified the damages awarded by the jury.
Diseases associated with asbestos exposure generally do not appear for 30-40 years after initial exposure, so even people who haven’t worked in the railroad industry in many years may still be at risk for developing mesothelioma or another asbestos-related disease. Such workers are urged to discuss their possible asbestos exposure with their doctor and to receive regular check-ups for any signs of asbestos-related disease.