Before 1980, one of the biggest risks for railroad workers did not come directly from the huge machines that surrounded them. Instead, it came from tiny fibers inside the asbestos-containing parts and materials that were often used to construct these trains. In fact, a 2007 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report states that the railroad industry ranked 2nd for deaths resulting from mesothelioma—a fast-moving form of cancer cause by exposure to asbestos.
How Were Railroad Workers Exposed to Asbestos?
Because asbestos is an incredibly resilient, strong, and heat-resistant mineral, hundreds of companies chose to use it as an ingredient in the manufacturing of thousands of products produced before 1980. The problem is, when asbestos-containing products are damaged, or wear down due to age, they can release tiny, dangerous fibers into the air. These fibers can be inhaled or carried home on a worker’s skin or clothing in the form of dust. Wherever exposure takes place, asbestos fibers can get stuck inside a person’s body and eventually lead to the development of mesothelioma.
Before 1980, asbestos-containing products could often be found almost anywhere on a train, including:
- In boiler rooms
- In the area just outside the engine
- On pipe coverings that ran throughout the train
- In any area that contained insulation
- On brake linings and pads
- In clutches and gaskets
- In ceiling and floor tiles of passenger cars
Before safety rules became law, thousands of railroad workers were potentially exposed to asbestos just by doing their jobs. How? Trains are constantly starting, stopping, and running along miles and miles of bumpy tracks. It’s hard to imagine how these activities wouldn’t disturb the fibers inside the dozens of asbestos-containing products used to build these older trains.
When & How Long Were Railroad Workers Exposed?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the greatest amount of railroad industry-related asbestos exposure occurred in the steam engine era, which ended in 1959 when steam engines were replaced with diesel engines.
The Union Pacific Railroad confirms this in its 2004 annual report: “The greatest potential for asbestos exposure in the railroad industry existed while steam locomotives were used. The railroad industry, including our predecessors and us, phased out steam locomotives in approximately 1955-1960.” The report also states: “The use of asbestos-containing products in the railroad industry was substantially reduced after steam locomotives were discontinued.” But the same report concludes: “It [asbestos] was not completely eliminated.”
Union Pacific acknowledges that asbestos-containing products continued to be used in isolated component parts on locomotives and railroad cars during the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that railroads began to use non-asbestos-containing parts.
Mesothelioma Can Take Decades to Develop
It only takes 1 inhaled asbestos fiber to cause mesothelioma, and with so many potential sources of repeated workplace exposure, it’s understandable why railroad workers are such a high-risk group.
Mesothelioma often takes a long time to develop—as much as 20-50 years. That means railroad workers who were exposed decades ago may just now be receiving a diagnosis. Today, there is still potential for on-the-job asbestos exposure, but the threat is much lower due to public awareness and much-needed safety regulations.
Protecting Railroad Workers from Danger
The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration’s (FRA) Office of Railroad Safety is responsible for both promoting and regulating railroad safety. The office boasts 400 safety inspectors, operating out of 8 regional offices. The agency focuses on compliance and enforcement of hazardous materials laws, among other safety issues.
Remember, locomotive parts made prior to the early 1980s may well contain asbestos. Any worker handling old parts is at risk. Should a worker be concerned about the safety of his or her work environment, the first step is to speak with the supervisor. If that does not result in a satisfactory answer or change of work procedures, it may be time to place a call to the FRA.