A man cleaning the inside of a railroad tank car passed out and died of suffocation after being overwhelmed by ethanol fumes. The deadly worksite accident occurred in North Las Vegas, Nevada (NV), on the night of August 2, 2014. Reports did not conclusively identify the deceased victim as a rail company employee or name the business where the incident occurred.
Police, firefighters and a National Guard hazmat team responded to the scene, which the Las Vegas Sun identified as a corporate rail yard at the end of a trunk line at 5095 El Campo Grande Avenue. No one was able to remove the victim from the railroad tank car before he lost his life. Ethanol is a pure form of alcohol that is often burned in engines as an alternative to gasoline. It is not poisonous by itself, but its fumes can replace oxygen in people’s lungs and bloodstreams.
Fumes, smoke and dust of all kinds are ever-present dangers for people who work on, in and around trains. Two of the best-recognized risks for rail workers are diesel fumes and asbestos particles, both of which are strongly linked to fatal forms of cancer. Chemical fumes also pose life-threatening risks, as the industrial accident at the railroad siding in Nevada tragically attests.
As a Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death attorney who has helped many people bring industrial illness claims against railroads like Norfolk Southern and CSX, I know that all companies have legal and moral obligation to protect employees’ health and lives. Myriad laws and regulations enforced by agencies such as the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration require that tank cars be completely vented before workers enter them. When that it is not possible, protective gear such as respirators must be supplied.
A full investigation by OSHA and other regulatory groups needs to be completed before anyone can know with certainty what went wrong in North Las Vegas. If the man’s employer failed to keep him safe, that company and its officials must be held accountable.