Although railways have been modernized, they can sometimes stir feelings of nostalgia and sentimentality with their quaint charms. History books describe how trains have been a major part of the historical expansion of the U.S. Long trips offer a unique opportunity to appreciate the natural beauty of pristine expanses of land. And to this day, trains are often one of the earliest toys given to children.
As fondly as people may remember trains, it is very easy to overlook the fact that individuals who have worked on railways often endured exposure to asbestos. At Kazan, McClain, Lyons, Greenwood and Harley, we know that in order to protect workers like you today, we need to remember what put individuals in danger in the past.
Protecting the train, but posing a health hazard
During the 20th century, asbestos was a popular component of both industrial and commercial products around the world. The toxic mineral had become prevalent because of its ability to act as an insulator against heat and electricity as well as its physical properties that allowed it to withstand friction. These characteristics made asbestos invaluable to the railway industry.
One place railroad workers were especially vulnerable to asbestos exposure was in the train repair plant. Here, employees would have to dismantle the steam locomotives, requiring them to handle potentially contaminated parts. This included the asbestos lagging that was wrapped around the boilers. For countries that curbed asbestos use, some of these products were eventually replaced with man-made minerals. However, this would not necessarily have been helpful to those who already inhaled asbestos fibers.
A brief history of asbestos-related illnesses in the railway industry
The danger of breathing in asbestos is that it increases the risk of diseases such as malignant mesothelioma, which can take between 20 and 50 years to develop. In Japan, asbestosis had been detected among railway workers as early as 1928.
One team of Japanese scientists conducted a study in which they examined the health records of individuals who worked in that country’s railway industry between 1928 and 1987. This included a review of five studies that enrolled a total of 350,000 active employees. The researchers concluded that almost all of them had elevated risks of asbestos-related malignancies. They also discovered two cases of mesothelioma in 1980.
Another team of scientists reviewed the health records of 181 railroad machinists who worked in the U.S. between 1920 and 1929. The researchers tracked their well-being until 1986. They discovered 14 cases of mesothelioma by the end of the study period, marking this industry as one of the most vulnerable to asbestos-related illnesses.
What today’s employers can do
The U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration limited employee asbestos exposure to 0.1 fibers per cubic centimeter (f/cc) of air over the course of eight hours. There is another short-term exposure limit of 1 f/cc over 30 minutes.
In any industry where work conditions may exceed these limits on a regular basis, employers must conduct periodic air monitoring. Certain zones where asbestos exposure is likely can be designated as regulated areas, which limit access to only specially trained and protected personnel. If businesses expect their asbestos measurements to exceed safety limits, they must provide their workers with respirators, protective clothing, decontamination areas, training and medical examinations.