Generations of workers across different industries have been exposed to asbestos and have developed asbestos-related diseases, including railroad workers. Because of the widespread use of asbestos in products from the 1920s through the 1980s, millions of people were exposed to this (now known) human carcinogen.
Regulations around the use of asbestos changed in the 1970s when it became more widely known that asbestos was dangerous if breathed in. Although most regulations are in place today to protect railroad workers, asbestos can still be found in old railroad tracks, railway cars, and old buildings. This means that asbestos exposure is still occurring to this day. But why does this matter?
The Harmful Reality of Asbestos
Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that was once known as the "miracle mineral" for its unique resistance to heat, fire, chemicals, and electricity. It was mined and then used across industries in the early 20th century and into the late 20th century, until the dangers of it became widely known.
Asbestos is made up of tiny fibers that cannot be dispelled by the human body if inhaled. When it is disturbed, the tiny fibers disperse throughout the air and are easily inhaled. In many cases, people don't know when they've been exposed to asbestos because the fibers are not easy to see and they free-float through the air. It's usually decades later that someone may develop an asbestos-related disease and then realize that they were exposed.
But why decades later? Asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma have a long dormancy stage. This rare, aggressive, and fatal cancer forms on the protective lining of the lungs, abdomen, testicles, or heart, but can lay dormant for decades before developing. There is currently no cure for mesothelioma, but there are treatment options available to reduce symptoms and help improve someone's quality of life.
Mesothelioma is a direct cause of asbestos exposure. Unfortunately, during its early stages, it is commonly mistaken for minor ailments or illnesses. The symptoms of mesothelioma typically persist for months or even years before a patient may be properly diagnosed. This is why, if you believe you have been exposed to asbestos fibers as a railroad worker, it's important for you to undergo regular medical monitoring and screening. This can improve your chances of obtaining an early diagnosis and enable you to start treatment right away.
Symptoms and signs of mesothelioma typically include:
- Pain in lower back or side of the chest
- Respiratory infection
- Shortness of breath or painful breathing
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Bowel and digestive difficulties
- Swelling and fluid buildup
Getting a mesothelioma diagnosis requires many tests to confirm its existence and it can often be confused with lung cancer. The primary difference is the fluid buildup around the lungs (pleural effusion) or in the abdomen (ascites). This fluid would need to be tested for cancer cells, and then a biopsy would be needed for the doctor to confirm the presence of cancer.
Mesothelioma Rates in Railroad Workers
Railroad workers have some of the highest levels of mesothelioma cases across the U.S., depending largely on their job functions. Unfortunately, despite the changes in regulations to protect railroad workers, it's important for railroad workers to be aware of the current dangers. And if you have been a railroad worker in the past, it's important to be aware of your level of risk of developing an asbestos-related disease.
History of Asbestos Use in the Railroad Industry
Railroads were the most popular choice for transportation by the late 19th century, particularly as major cities became more industrialized. Railroads were used to deliver fuel, building supplies, agricultural products, food, and more. More and more railways continued to be constructed, and consequently, additional workers were hired to build them, manage them, and repair them.
In its heyday, the railroad industry had over 300,000 miles of railway that was closely maintained by railroad workers. These workers constructed, inspected, repaired, and rebuilt roadbeds and railroad ties. They were responsible for ensuring that the railways operated efficiently. To ensure efficiency, there were three main types of railroad workers:
- Conductors and yardmasters coordinated everyday activities and managed the other workers.
- Rail track maintenance equipment operators repaired and maintained the locomotives, including the electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems.
- Train operators and engineers were responsible for ensuring the trains traveled safely and arrived when they were expected to. They drove the trains, worked the switches, signals, and brakes, and ensured the proper functioning of the locomotives during travel. The subspecialties within this group included ironworkers, mechanics, brakemen, and switchmen.
In the 20th century, railroads accounted for roughly 33% of U.S. exports. To this day, there are still more than one million active railroad workers in the U.S.
Of all the railroad workers in the 20th century, most are likely to have been exposed to asbestos. Asbestos was used extensively in locomotive construction and train construction, as it was affordable, durable, flexible, and provided great protection against fires. Even when they learned of the risks of asbestos, most railway companies failed to inform their workers of the health risks they faced daily, and they continued their widespread use of it until the 1980s. This is what has led to so many mesothelioma and asbestos-related disease cases over the past few decades.
Asbestos Products Used in the Railroad Industry
A number of asbestos products were used in the railroad industry, some of which are still a present threat to railroad workers. These asbestos products include:
- Cement powder
- Railroad ties
- Sealing cement
- Wallboards and plaster
- Brake linings
- Brake pads
- Floor tiles
Due to the widespread use of asbestos in railroad cars and buildings, anyone who traveled by train was at risk of asbestos exposure, with the greatest level of risk being to those who directly constructed or repaired railroad tracks, railroad cars, and buildings.
Secondary Exposure to Families of Railroad Workers
Those who were not directly working with asbestos products but had family members who did are at risk of exposure. Asbestos fibers cling to clothing, hair, and skin, meaning that a railroad worker could have unknowingly exposed their family when they came home from work. Research has shown, however, that the workers who actively worked on railways and rail cars have three times the risk of developing an asbestos-related disease than non-railway workers do.
Your Legal Options as a Railroad Worker
Many cases have been brought forward of railroad workers who were heavily exposed to asbestos and suffered years later from asbestos-related diseases. The railroad companies knowingly exposed their workers to the harms of asbestos, despite knowing it put their employees at risk, and they didn't warn them of the dangers. If you are included in this group or have family members that fell ill as a result of your exposure, you may be able to obtain compensation. Our lawyers may be able to fight on your behalf to ensure you receive compensation for all you've endured and the medical bills you now have to deal with.