The Occupational Safety and Health Administration banned the use of asbestos in the 1970s. However, it continued to be used throughout the railroad industry, despite these companies knowing the risk their employees were taking by working around asbestos.
History Of Asbestos Use On Railroads
By the late 19th century, everything was being transported by railroad. In fact, this movement began in the 1890s when major U.S. cities began to become industrialized. Railroads were used to deliver building supplies, fuel, food and agricultural products to urban populations that would otherwise not have access to these essential items. As a result, railroads became an important part of U.S. prosperity during this time.
With the establishment of more and more railways, U.S. companies had to hire additional workers to build railways, manage transportation issues and fix broken railroad engines. When the railroad industry ruled transportation, there were more than 300,000 miles of railway tracks—all of which had to be closely maintained by railroad workers.
Types of Railroad Workers
Railroad workers often worked together to inspect damaged railroad ties, rails and roadbeds for any evidence of damage. Other workers were assigned to replace damaged railroad ties, rebuild worn out roadbeds and lay out new areas of railways. There were also railroad workers that were responsible for maintaining the railways and repairing damaged railways parts.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 3 main types of railroad workers:
- Yardmasters and Conductors. These workers were responsible for coordinating the everyday activities of passenger and freight railroad crews. The yardmasters worked in the rail yard, while the conductors inspected the cars to make sure they were working to the peak of their capacity. Conductors also managed the railroad operators, railroad engineers, general maintenance workers and those responsible for the removal of defective cars.
- Rail track maintenance equipment operators. These operators repaired and maintained the locomotives, which powered the trains, and the railroad tracks. Locomotives created during that time had electricity, plumbing, heating systems and cooling systems—all of which needed to be maintained by equipment operators.
- Train operators and engineers. These railroad workers made sure that passenger and freight trains traveled safely and arrived on time. The engineers drove the trains, while the operators worked the switches, signals and brakes. There were several different subspecialties among operators and engineers, including mechanics, ironworkers, brakemen and switchmen—all of whom were required for the proper functioning of the locomotive on the track.
Railroads continue to be an important part of society in the 21st century, even after the advent of automobiles. Railroads accounted for about 33% of U.S. exports in the 20th century, and there are still more than 1 million active railroad workers in the U.S.
Health Risks Railway Workers Face
Working in the railway industry has historically been a dangerous occupation to hold. In addition to the risk of railroad accidents and other mishaps, railroad workers were often exposed to toxic asbestos substances as part of their job.
Asbestos was used to make locomotives and trains because it was cheap, durable, flexible and provided natural insulation and fireproofing. Many railway companies didn’t tell their employees about the health risks associated with inhaling asbestos. Even worse, many companies were still using locomotive parts made prior to the 1980s, which is when materials were finally made out of non-asbestos containing substances.
Some asbestos-containing products used in train or track parts included:
- Railroad equipment. Asbestos was found in cement used to make railroad ties, gaskets on locomotive engines, sealing cement, wallboards and plaster.
- Insulation. Asbestos was used to insulate diesel and steam locomotives and to keep the boilers hot. It was also used in the ceilings of cabooses and as insulation for electrical panels and the outside of the engines.
- Locomotive Parts. Workers were exposed to asbestos found in clutches, brake linings, brake pads, floor tiles and the ceilings used in passenger cars.
- Railroad equipment. Workers were exposed to asbestos used in the manufacturing of gaskets, sealing cement, wallboards, plaster and cement ties.
Secondhand Asbestos Exposure
Due to asbestos being used in almost every aspect of railroad cars, even workers who didn’t repair track or locomotive parts could have been unknowingly exposed to asbestos. Similarly, those who worked or lived near railroad shops, roadhouses or engine repair shops were also at risk of exposure to asbestos because of asbestos fibers present in the air. Asbestos was also used in the wallboards and floor tiles of railroad cars, which put anyone who was traveling by train at risk for asbestos exposure.
Some railroad workers brought asbestos that had been absorbed into their clothing back into their homes, which could then be inhaled by their families. Many workers and family members had embedded asbestos fibers in the GI tract and lungs. Unless the asbestos fibers were coughed out, they remained embedded in these areas for decades before causing lung or gastrointestinal problems.
Asbestos was used in clutches, brake linings and brake pads on locomotives because it was resistant to friction and heat. These locomotive parts would eventually wear down and need to be replaced. Yardmasters and conductors inhaled asbestos whenever these building materials became worn out and needed replaced, as they released asbestos fibers into the air.
Research shows that workers who actively worked on railways and railway cars had 3 times the risk of developing lung cancer as non-railway workers. Mesothelioma cancer, a rare form of lung cancer, was also much more prevalent in railway industry workers. Eventually, the connection was made between railroad workers, asbestos exposure and lung cancer—particularly mesothelioma.
Other research shows that workers were exposed to asbestos before the 1950s, which is when there were more steam locomotives than diesel-powered ones. Workers who had to repair the older engines were particularly at risk, as these engines showed the most wear and tear, leading to asbestos inhalation.
Lawsuits Against Railway Companies
When it finally became clear that railroad workers were heavily exposed to asbestos and dying from asbestos-related diseases years later, lawsuits began to be filed against railway companies. These companies knowingly exposed their workers to asbestos, despite having the knowledge that it could pose a health risk to their employees.
Through lawsuits, settlements and trust funds, railroad workers are able to obtain compensation for any exposure to asbestos that occurred while on the job. Additionally, families of railroad workers can obtain compensation for any indirect exposure to asbestos that may have occurred in the home.