Railroad Worker Asbestos Exposure

Railroads were once the lifeblood of the American economy, transforming America from a rural, agricultural society into an urban, industrial one. Vital goods such as fuel, food and building materials were transported on tracks to communities across the country. Railroads are a big reason cities thrived, and that is in no small part due to the labor and dedication of railroad workers throughout the 19th and 20th century.

Unfortunately, railroad worker asbestos exposure has resulted in many falling ill due to asbestos-related diseases, such as lung cancer, asbestosis and mesothelioma. And while other forms of transportation – most notably, car travel – have surpassed railroads in popularity, trains remain frequently used. The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration reports the U.S. freight rail network is a $60 billion industry consisting of 140,000 rail miles and employing some 221,000 people.

The Boston railroad worker asbestos exposure attorneys at Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers know that railroad workers, the backbone of this operation, are at high risk of developing asbestos-related diseases because of the amount of this toxic material in railway infrastructure.

Unlike most employees, railroad workers can sue their employer for compensation of work-related illness via the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), 45. U.S.C. 51, enacted in 1908 to protect and compensate railroad workers injured on-the-job. Rail workers must prove their employer was at least partially negligent in causing their injury/ illness, but it does provide a means by which railroad workers have received millions in compensation for mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses.

Railroad Workers Were Frequently Exposed to Asbestos

Although asbestos is not commonly used today, it exists in many older rail structures because almost all steam train manufacturers used the material in insulation for fireboxes, pipes and boilers. Cabooses and boxcars were usually lined with asbestos insulation, and sometimes train cars were too.

Other train materials that contained asbestos:

  • Gaskets
  • Sealing cement (used to seal valves and pipe joints)
  • Floor tiles
  • Brake clutches and linings
  • Rope

Rail workers employed in and around steam trains or within repair shops were often exposed to harmful asbestos dust fibers, sometimes working directly with the toxic material, which they may have been required to cut and stretch. Deadly fibers would be floating everywhere, and workers rarely were given proper respiratory protection.

In some cases, workers even carried those fibers home with them – on their clothing, in their hair, on their car seats – putting their loved ones in danger.

Even workers who didn’t have any responsibility for directly working with the material could easily encounter it because the dust often tinged the air as other workers were performing various jobs with the material. Sometimes even railroad inspectors could find themselves in harm’s way.

A study published in 1987 in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine looked at the risk of asbestos exposure for workers employed in the rail industry before the 1950s, when the evolution from steam-to-diesel-powered locomotives occurred. Because mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases don’t manifest until decades after exposure, the effects of asbestos on those workers weren’t seen until many years later.

What the study authors discovered was that at least 21 percent of older workers had a work history that entailed likely asbestos exposure, compared to 3 percent of those who worked on locomotive trains. That may not sound like much, but consider that 3 percent of 221,000 (the current number of rail workers) is 6,630.

Researchers have opined railroad machinists and other workers were most commonly exposed to chrysotile asbestos, described by the World Health Organization as a known carcinogen, which can cause cancers of the lungs, larynx and ovaries, as well as asbestosis and mesothelioma.

While the U.S. is not among the dozens of countries that have banned asbestos, consumption of it has fallen from 668,0000 metric tons in 1970 to 359,000 tons in 1980 to 32 tons in 1990 to 1 ton in 2010.

Although occupational exposure of asbestos in the railroad industry has fallen, it has not been eliminated, which our mesothelioma lawyers know means we will be seeing cases of asbestos-related illnesses for many decades to come.

Railroad Worker Compensation Under FELA

While railroad workers historically were exposed to many occupational hazards, that does not excuse the railroad companies from the legal duty to provide a reasonably safe place to work. When companies violate this resulting in employee injury or illness, the railroad must be held responsible. The fact that workers were aware the industry was dangerous is not a valid defense in FELA cases.

FELA outlines liability of common railroad carriers for injuries to employees from negligence.

This is an avenue of compensation railroad workers have that many other employees do not. The reason is that workers’ compensation laws, such as Chapter 152 of M.G.L., contain exclusivity provisions. These statutes stipulate that workers’ compensation is the exclusive remedy for workers to seek compensation from employers for work-related illness or injuries – even if the company was negligent in causing the worker’s injury. The worker receives medical and wage loss benefits, but is prohibited from suing for pain and suffering and loss of life enjoyment.

Workers’ compensation is not available to railroad workers. FELA has allowed railroad workers to collect millions in compensation.

For example, there was a case out of Illinois in which the estate of a railroad worker who died from lung cancer was awarded $3.1 million (later reduced to $2.1 million for contributory negligence) from the Illinois Central Railroad Company for exposure to asbestos, which was the purported cause of decedent’s death. Defendant railroad argued the claim was filed outside the statute of limitations, but that portion of the verdict was affirmed.

In North Carolina, a former CSX Railroad employee diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma after 38 years in the railroad industry was awarded $7.5 million after jurors determined he was exposed regularly to asbestos on construction materials and boiler pipes while at work.

In both these instances, plaintiffs showed:

  • Railroad companies were aware of asbestos exposure danger to workers;
  • Railroad companies failed to take precautions to protect workers from toxic asbestos dust;
  • Railroad companies failed to warn workers of the dangers of this exposure;
  • Workers fell ill due to that years-ago asbestos exposure.

The great tragedy in these cases is often that workers are diagnosed soon after retirement. They have poured their energies and dedication into a career that ultimately betrayed them with a fatal diagnosis just as they were embarking on the next chapter. Mesothelioma robs workers – and their families – of enjoyment of their golden years.

Although some have criticized workers for pursuing mesothelioma lawsuits against railroads and a “dying industry,” the reality is rail is not dead, and these civil actions are not going to put them out of business. They will, however, hold accountable companies that flagrantly disregarded the lives and well-being of dedicated railroad workers to maximize their own profits.

Contact Jeffrey Glassman Injury Lawyers today for a free and confidential consultation.


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