Railroad Exposure & Asbestos
History & Background
The railroad has been one of the major advances that helped America expand
across the entire continent. In the past century it has slowly been surpassed
by air travel and interstate highways yet it is still an integral part
of America's economy, transporting resources and passengers.
Until the 1950s most trains were powered through the steam engine, which
creates as a byproduct an incredible amount of heat and energy. In an
effort to insulate and protect against this heat, the trains and engines
were constructed and insulated with
asbestos, a natural mineral that is very strong as well as heat and fire-resistant.
During the 1950s the steam engine was slowly replaced by diesel trains.
Asbestos was still used on these new trains until the mid 1970s when the
dangers associated with exposure became known. Relatively unknown until
exposure to asbestos dust can cause harmful pulmonary diseases as discussed below.
How Were Railroad Workers Exposed?
Asbestos was widely used on and around trains from the early part of the
twentieth century on into the 1960s and 1970s. Its main function was as
a form of insulation, or lagging that was attached to the steam engine
boilers, fireboxes, and piping systems (one example of high-temperature
pipe insulation that contained asbestos is 'Johns-Manville Therma-Wrap').
It was also used to insulate boxcars and cabooses and was a covering for
wallboards in order to protect them from heat and fire. Asbestos was also
combined with other products to create sealing cement and gaskets that
were used to seal pipe joints and valves. Even cloth packing and rope
could contain asbestos. Floor tiles were also made with asbestos, as were
brake linings and clutches as it made these products heat resistant and
All men and women who worked around steam locomotives or in roundhouses,
backshops or repair facilities could have been exposed to asbestos dust
in the air. This was due to the fact that the asbestos insulation would
have to be cut and stretched in order to be put in place, the process
of which would get microscopic dust particles in the air. Often the gaskets
and cement used to seal joints would need to be sanded or grinded down,
again putting dangerous dust in the air.
Maintenance men and inspectors were also exposed because when the locomotives
were inspected, the insulation was removed and then re-applied creating
a hazardous dust-filled environment. Even if a worker did not work directly
on or with asbestos products they are still at risk because the dust would
Railroad Workers & Asbestos Diseases
For many years, the dangers of working with asbestos were not properly
disclosed by asbestos companies. Many blue collar workers, including railroad
workers, came in direct contact with asbestos on a daily basis and did
not wear the necessary protective equipment to prevent harmful exposure.
Unfortunately, the symptoms associated an asbestos-related disease, like
mesothelioma, can take as many as thirty to forty years to begin to appear.
As a result, signs of mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases
like lung cancer or asbestosis do not begin to show up for workers until
they are in their retirement years, long after asbestos exposure first occurred.