Railroading was not only confined to locomotives pulling trains on the open tracks. Thousands of railroad workers handled freight at stations and repaired cars in enclosed shops.
Railroads sprang up in the mid-1800s. They opened the west and developed the east, eventually connecting America. Technology advanced in the mid-1900s when diesel-electric locomotives replaced steam engines. During this golden age of rail, what was thought to be a miracle product was employed in every part of rolling stock construction. That supposedly ideal material was asbestos, and over time it exposed every railroader to its deadly fibers.
Railroad Worker Roles and Responsibilities
There are three main divisions in the railroad industry. The most visible part of railroading is the monstrous trains speeding down the tracks. That’s called the right-of-way or open road. Equally important are the rail yards, where trains assemble and unload and load freight. Behind these publicly-viewed places are the railroad shops. These are the enclosed environments where engines and cars get built, repaired and serviced.
It takes many different specialties to operate a railroad. Worker roles and responsibilities depend upon their division. Some are general labor jobs doing unskilled tasks where others have roles and responsibilities where people’s lives are at stake.
Historically, railroads have employed workers to keep the trains moving, passengers safe and freight delivered intact.
In the past, they worked in the following areas:
- Freight train crews were composed of engineers, conductors, firefighters and brake operators. Passenger trains required more workers like stewards, cooks and baggage handlers.
- Railyards employed workers such as switch operators, car couplers and maintenance crews. Yards required freight handlers, as well. Inspectors called yardmasters oversaw workers making up trains. So did the dispatchers and signal controllers.
- Repair shops housed the biggest variety of railroad workers. They employed welders, metal fabricators, mechanics, painters, plumbers and insulators. Boilermakers and electricians were necessary, as were specialty trades like refrigeration and hydraulic engineers.
Railroad Workers and Asbestos Exposure
Every aspect of railroad work exposed employees to asbestos. It was used on rolling stock, in yards and about the shops. Asbestos was considered the perfect railroad material additive. Products were strengthened with asbestos to reduce their weight. Asbestos was an excellent insulator and proved fire resistant. This resistance was crucial for protecting engines, boilers and fireboxes. Asbestos was non-corrosive, making it ideal for use with steel components that comprised the majority of train and track parts. And asbestos was stable to work with, cheap to purchase and widely available from many sources.
Railroad workers were exposed to asbestos every day of their working career. This exposure occurred for a seven-decade span from the 1920s to the 1980s. Some workers had more severe exposure than others. Exposure varied based on the products they used, the amount of asbestos said products contained and the duration of time the workers were in environments containing airborne asbestos fibers.
Some of these dangerous asbestos railroad products were:
- Boiler linings and firebox housing casings.
- Brake pads and clutch plates.
- Fireproofing in engine compartments.
- Sound deadening in engines, cabooses and passenger cars.
- Insulation in every type of rolling stock and stationary building.
- Valves, gaskets and sealants.
- Wallboard and paint.
- Packing, rope and cement supplies.
- Hoses for hydraulic and steam supply lines.
- Floor tiles and roofing products.
- Wall insulation in boxcars and building.
Mesothelioma Justice Network Brief
Building and construction supplies were only a few of the railroad asbestos products with exposure risks. Diesel locomotives replaced steam engines in the 50s and 60s, but the high heat and fire threat hazards continued. Railroad workers protected themselves with asbestos-based clothing like overalls, gloves, boots and hats.
Every asbestos product presented a health risk to railroad workers. Stable asbestos is somewhat safe, but when asbestos is disturbed in any way, dangerous tiny fibers detach and become airborne. Many asbestos products cut, fitted or repaired by railroad workers released millions of microscopic shards that were inhaled and stuck in workers’ lungs.
Railroad Workers and Mesothelioma
Asbestos fibers are the sole cause of mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer. Once asbestos fibers get into railroad workers’ lungs, they attach to their lining which is called the mesothelium. Asbestos particles are impossible to exhale. They remain permanently set and can sit dormant for decades while scar tissue develops into malignant tumors.
Many railroad workers were completely unaware of asbestos health hazards. Although the railroad industry phased out asbestos by the late 1980s, asbestos remained present in older buildings and rolling stock. Workers repairing old equipment are still at high risk for asbestos exposure. As well, many railroaders who were exposed to asbestos 30 to 50 years ago have asbestos fibers still in their lungs, which may eventually become malignant tumors.
Compensation for Railroad Workers with Mesothelioma
If you are a railroad worker who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, you are entitled to seek compensation. This may cover medical expenses, lost wages and compensate you for punitive damages from negligent asbestos manufacturers. Families can also file claims on behalf of relatives with mesothelioma as well as begin lawsuits for unlawful deaths.