Railroad Workers

American railroads have been, and still are, the nation’s transportation backbone. However, the railway expansion through America in the mid-1900s came at a cost. Workers were routinely exposed to asbestos, resulting in a deadly cancer called mesothelioma and other serious health issues that have taken far too many workers’ lives.

Get a Free Mesothelioma Guide

Railroad Workers and Asbestos Exposure

Railroads sprang up in the mid-1800s connecting America from coast to coast. Technology advanced in the mid-1900s when diesel-electric trains 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 many railroaders to its deadly fibers.

Many aspects 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.

How Railroad Workers Were Exposed to Asbestos

Railroad workers were exposed to asbestos on a daily basis from the 1920s to the 1980s. Some workers had more severe exposure than others.

In railroad workers, asbestos exposure varied on:

  • the products they used
  • the amount of asbestos the products contained
  • the duration of time the workers were exposed to asbestos fibers

Every asbestos product presented a health risk to railroad workers. Stable asbestos is somewhat safe, but when asbestos is disturbed, microscopic fibers detach and become airborne.

Did You Know?

Many asbestos products cut, fitted, or repaired by railroad workers released millions of tiny shards that workers could inhale.

Building and construction supplies were only a few of the railroad asbestos products with exposure risks. Diesel locomotives replaced steam engines in the 1950s and 1960s, but the high heat and fire threat hazards continued.

Asbestos Products Used in Railroad Work

Products were strengthened with asbestos to reduce their weight. Asbestos was an excellent insulator. It was also fire resistant, making it an ideal material to protect engines, boilers, and fireboxes.

Further, asbestos was non-corrosive, which made it useful steel components that comprised the majority of train and track parts.

Lastly, asbestos was stable to work with, inexpensive to purchase, and widely available from many sources.

Some of these dangerous asbestos railroad products were:

  • Boiler linings and firebox housing casings
  • Brake pads and clutch plates
  • Fireproofing in engine compartments
  • Floor tiles and roofing products
  • Gaskets
  • Hoses for hydraulic and steam supply lines
  • Insulation in every type of rolling stock and stationary building
  • Packing, rope, and cement supplies
  • Sealants
  • Sound deadening in engines, cabooses, and passenger cars
  • Valves
  • Wall insulation in boxcars and buildings
  • Wallboard and paint

Even pieces of protective clothing worn by railroad workers — like overalls, gloves, boots, and hats — were made with asbestos.

Railroad Worker Careers

Historically, railroads have employed workers to keep the trains moving, passengers safe, and freight delivered intact.

There are three main divisions in the railroad industry. The most visible part of railroading is the monstrous trains speeding down the tracks. 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.

These roles have included:

  • Train Crews: Freight train crews were composed of engineers, conductors, firefighters, and brake operators. Passenger trains required more workers like stewards, cooks, and baggage handlers.
  • Railyards: 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.
  • Rail Shops: 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.

Some are general labor jobs doing unskilled tasks where others have roles and responsibilities where people’s lives are at stake.

Railroad Worker Health Risks

Asbestos exposure is the sole cause of mesothelioma, a deadly lung cancer. Once asbestos fibers get into railroad workers’ lungs, they attach to their lining, called the pleura.

How Asbestos Causes Mesothelioma
Asbestos particles remain permanently set in the body, where they irritate healthy tissue. This irritation causes scar tissue, and eventually cancerous mesothelioma tumors, to form over several decades.

Although the railroad industry phased out asbestos by the 1980s, asbestos remained present in older buildings and rolling stock. Workers repairing old equipment are still at high risk for asbestos exposure.

Sadly, many railroad workers were completely unaware of asbestos health hazards. Railroaders who were exposed to asbestos 20-50 years ago could receive a mesothelioma diagnosis in the near future.

Help for Mesothelioma Victims

If you are a railroad worker who developed mesothelioma from workplace asbestos exposure, you may be eligible for legal compensation.

Filing a claim can help you financially with medical expenses and lost wages. It may also compensate you for punitive damages from negligent asbestos companies.

Families can also file claims on behalf of relatives with mesothelioma as well as begin lawsuits for unlawful deaths.

It’s important to work with an experienced mesothelioma lawyer before filing for compensation of any kind. Our Justice Support team can connect you with legal and medical resources. Get a free case review today.

Mesothelioma Support Team
Stephanie KiddWritten by:


Stephanie Kidd grew up in a family of civil servants, blue-collar workers, and medical caregivers. Upon graduating Summa Cum Laude from Stetson University, she began her career specializing in worker safety regulations and communications. Now, a proud member of the American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and Editor-in-Chief of the Mesothelioma Cancer Network, Stephanie serves as a voice for mesothelioma victims and their families.

Back to Top