Fires and Explosions on Trains Expose Railroad Workers to Toxic Fumes From Chemicals

Locomotive engine fires, battery fires and tanker car explosions make headlines. Injuries, deaths, property damage and evacuations of nearby homes and business are definitely newsworthy.

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Immediate and long-term health risks to railroad workers from smoke inhalation and chemical exposures receive practically no attention. Fires and explosions spew smoke laced with harmful particulates and poisonous fumes. The only way to avoid that is to prevent accidents that cause engines or rail cars to burst into flames.

Companies and regulators cannot continue ignoring or downplaying potential safety problems, as our law firm’s own experience advising and representing retired railroaders who developed job-related cancers proves. Pursuing disability and wrongful death compensation for Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA) case clients has revealed hundreds of instances of improper or skipped maintenance leading to preventable injuries and illnesses.

Focus on Complying With the Locomotive Inspection Act

The federal Locomotive Inspection Act, or LIA, exists to protects railroad workers against all kinds of significant maintenance defects or malfunctions on locomotive engines and in crew cabs. The heart of the LIA is it clause that reads

It shall be unlawful for any railroad to use or permit to be used on its line any locomotive unless said locomotive, its boiler, tender, and all parts and appurtenances thereof are in proper condition and safe to operate in the service to which the same are put, that the same may be employed in the active service of such railroad without unnecessary peril to life or limb, and unless said locomotive, its boiler, tender, and all parts and appurtenances thereof have been inspected from time to time … and are able to withstand such test or tests as may be prescribed in the rules and regulations as hereinafter provided for.

The act dates back to 1911, so its wording is slightly out of date. Regardless, the provisions of the LIA place legally enforceable duties on Amtrack, CSX, Norfolk Southern and all other freight and passenger railroads that are engaged in interstate commerce to ensure any condition on an engine that can endanger a railroad worker is identified and resolved in a timely fashion.


The LIA covers engines, engine components, brakes and braking systems, speed controls, ladders, handholds, decking and anti-slip/anti-skid deck coverings. Failing to comply with all the regulations and best practices under the LIA can set the stage for dangerous, possibly deadly, incidents such as

  • Engine or battery fires accompanied by massive releases of toxic smoke and fumes;
  • Sudden and unexpected releases of toxic fumes;
  • Collisions or derailments that start fires or trigger explosions;
  • Persistent venting of toxic fumes into the crew cab; or
  • Slips, trips and falls on leaked oil or lubricants.

Understand How LIA Violations Create FELA Liability

The Federal Employers Liability Act exists to protect railroad workers from the negligence of the companies that employ them. The FELA and LIA are related because liability for compensating engineers, conductors, trackmen, machinists, switchmen, signalmen and even clerks and office personnel who suffer work-related injuries or develop occupational illnesses applies when a company does not comply with the rules for inspecting and repairing or replacing faulty equipment.

Liability will exist even if a specific LIA violation cannot be shown to have directly caused the injury, death or illnesses. Also, a person does not have to be in or working on a locomotive in order to have a valid claim for compensation. Smoke, fumes and fires spread far from a damaged locomotive.

As an example of how an LIA violation gives rise to FELA liability, consider this case our Virginia-based personal injury and wrongful death law firm handled. Our client was a locomotive engineer who found himself enveloped in a plume of toxic smoke when a battery box underneath the engine platform on which he was standing exploded.

The smoke dissipated quickly, and our client continued working the remainder of his shift. Several weeks later, however, he began experiencing bronchitis-like symptoms of coughing fits, shortness of breath and hoarseness. A question from his family physician about recent exposures to smoke or chemical fumes led to a referral to a specialist. The ear, nose and throat doctor used a scope to identify damage to the engineer’s larynx that was most likely caused by inhaling smoke and chemicals.

Checking the Material Safety Data Sheets for the battery that exploded allowed our law firm to make the case that breathing in the smoke from the explosion while on duty caused our client’s disabling health condition. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires all railroads and equipment makers to prepare such sheets, and they often prove invaluable in FELA cases involving occupational illnesses. In this particular case arising from the exploding battery, the toxic fumes included sulfuric acid and other electrolytic compounds.

Securing compensation for the injured and ill locomotive engineer was still difficult. Litigation went on for more than 18 months, in part because the railroad argued the lack of an immediate diagnosis of a harmful exposure to chemical fumes indicated no health problems developed at work.

Ultimately, that objection did not carry any weight. Sufficient documentary evidence and testimony from the engineer’s coworkers existed to show that the railroad had failed to comply with LIA regulations. That evidence, coupled with a later diagnosis of a permanent health problem that could have been caused by the battery explosion, was enough to achieve a positive result for our client.


Richard N. Shapiro
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Personal Injury & Wrongful Death Lawyer Serving Va Beach, Norfolk, Chesapeake & all of Virginia