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Railroad workers have an elevated risk of occupational exposure to asbestos due to the presence of the material in aging railcars and tracks. When working with or coming into contact with these materials, workers were put at risk of developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.

While asbestos use in newly constructed railcars has waned, more than 160,000 rail employees are still at risk of developing asbestos illnesses from exposure to past uses of asbestos materials.


How Are Railroad Workers at Risk of Asbestos Exposure

Asbestos was widely used in the rail industry until the 1980s. The mineral’s ability to resist heat and prevent fires made it appealing for use on diesel locomotives and steam locomotives. The railroad industry also relied on a number of other asbestos products including asbestos insulation, floor tiles, rail ties, steam engines, brake pads, brake linings and sealing cement, among other products. These asbestos-containing materials were utilized aboard freight trains and passenger cars, putting passengers and railroad workers in a variety of positions at risk of exposure.

At-Risk Trades
  • General maintenance workers
  • Inspectors
  • Locomotive engineers
  • Locomotive firers
  • Machinists
  • Railroad brake, signal and switch operators
  • Railroad conductors and yardmasters
  • Rail yard engineers

When aging railcars deteriorate, asbestos becomes friable, leading to exposures. Workers in this industry can be exposed to airborne asbestos fibers when repairing or operating locomotives built prior to 1980, a risk that may be compounded for those working in confined and poorly ventilated spaces like repair shops. Railway workers not working directly with the asbestos-containing materials are also at risk of exposure due to the prevalence of the toxin within the industry through the 20th century. Railway companies that are known to have led to asbestos exposures include the Long Island Railroad, Metro-North Railroad, Railroad Friction Products Corporation and National Railroad Passenger Corporation. In addition to asbestos exposure from the industry’s wide use of the toxin, railroad workers may also encounter naturally occurring asbestos when excavating or tunneling for new rail lines.

When disturbed, asbestos fibers may be inhaled or ingested and become lodged in the lining of organs. The microscopic fibers create scar tissue and over time may lead to health risks, including mesothelioma, asbestosis, lung cancer and other lung diseases. Because of the prevalence of asbestos in the industry, railroad workers are at high risk for these diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent data, railroad workers comprised 17.6% of the mesothelioma cancer deaths in the transportation, warehousing and utilities sector in 1999.

Retired railroad workers are still at risk of mesothelioma diagnoses due to the long latency period of the disease. On average, it can take 20 – 50 years for symptoms to first show after exposure. Due to the latency period, mesothelioma rates among railroad workers may remain steady for decades, despite estimates that the number of workers in the industry will drop by 3% between 2016 and 2026.

Preventing Asbestos Exposure

Railroad employees and train crews are protected under both the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA). The dual oversight of railroad workers can lead to issues regarding whose jurisdiction certain instances of safety fall under. The FRA found that between 2000 and 2015, more than 60 railroad workers were killed while performing work duties not covered by the FRA’s regulations. To mitigate these health risks, OSHA and the FRA have released memorandums and advisories demonstrating that OSHA’s regulations cover railroad workers when activities fall outside of the scope of the FRA.

The most recent FRA Safety Advisory published in November 2016 recommends:

  • Railroads develop hazard-recognition strategies to identify and address existing conditions that pose health and safety hazards to employees.
  • Railroad workers undergo annual training on the hazard strategies.
  • Before starting any rail work, workers should have mandatory job safety briefings compliant with OSHA regulations.
  • Companies should develop Good Faith Challenge Procedures, a system that allows railroad workers to report on any safety concerns on a job.

In the advisory, the FRA stated that OSHA regulations applicable to the construction industry also apply to railroad workers. This includes guidelines like isolating processes that could produce asbestos dust, wearing protective gear to help prevent exposure and following the appropriate cleaning methods when handling the mineral.

Additionally, railroad workers are protected under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA), which protects railroad workers who’ve been injured on the job. If the employee or their loved ones can prove a railroad company was negligent and this negligence caused their injury or illness, they may be entitled to compensation for medical expenses. Asbestos diseases related to occupational exposure are covered by FELA.

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