Railroad work is inherently dangerous. In addition to the obvious risks, there are hidden airborne toxic dangers some workers face daily on the job. For years, railroad companies relied heavily on parts and supplies made with asbestos, a known carcinogen. This went on even after they were made aware of the potential harm it could cause employees when invisible airborne fibers were in railroad shops or even in engine crew cab compartments. 


Numerous studies also warned of the dangers posed by diesel exhaust fumes, which is proven to cause various types of lung cancer in workers exposed to dust and fumes. Unfortunately, railroad company executives failed to make their employees aware of the risks, exposing engineers, conductors, carmen and locomotive shop workers to occupational diesel fumes exposure. The diesel fumes contain a toxic cocktail of more than a dozen carcinogenic substances, within the polyaromatic hydrocarbons, and some workers routinely inhaled diesel fumes every day in their jobs.  Numerous studies have confirmed increased lung cancer rates in workers with twenty or more years of regular workplace exposures.


Many railroad workers exposed to asbestos or diesel fumes also smoked cigarettes, and cigarettes also contain carcinogens.  Lung cancer can be caused by asbestos, by diesel fumes and/or by cigarettes, or by a mix of exposures. Our firm does not reject potential FELA cases because a potential client smoked, as long as there is substantial evidence of asbestos or diesel fume exposure on the job.  We review each case based on the facts of the exposure histories.


At Shapiro & Appleton, we hold railroad companies responsible for their negligence in not warning employees about these hazards and for failing to take action to protect them. In situations where lung cancer or other diseases result, our experienced railroad accident and injury lawyers help railroad employees and their family members get the compensation they are entitled to in a claim. 


Learn More: 


Asbestos and Lung Cancer Risks Among Railroad Workers


Asbestos was a common material used extensively throughout the United States during World War II.  A bundle of fibers containing six naturally occurring minerals, its ability to resist hot temperatures, fire, electrical currents, and chemical damage made it valuable to the railroad industry. From the 1930s to the 1980s, it was used extensively in manufacturing locomotive parts and supplies. Common uses included: 


  • In railroad equipment, such as rail ties, wall boards, and sealing gaskets;
  • In locomotive parts, including brake pads and brake linings, clutches, and ceiling or floor tiles;
  • As insulation, such as for pipe coverings, boilers, electrical panels, and under the engine or the metal body of the train, as well as to insulate pipes on diesel locomotives. 


While asbestos has qualities that made it suitable for a variety of purposes, it also has vulnerabilities. As we discussed in a prior article on asbestos in the railroad industry, when asbestos is disturbed, vibrated, or breaks down due to age or damage, it can become friable, causing it to release microscopic fibers in the air. These fibers are easily inhaled or swallowed and can get lodged in the lungs or other body organs. This can result in mesothelioma, a cancer of the outer lining of the lungs, and other types of lung diseases. Due to its extensive use in the railroad industry,  railroad workers are among those most likely to be impacted. 


Railroads were some of the biggest employers in the country in the 1930s and 40s. They held annual medical seminars during this time, with railroad surgeons, physicians, and other medical professionals in attendance. They recognized a link between asbestos and lung related diseases early on but did nothing. By the 1960s, they also knew of the potential for asbestos exposure to result in mesothelioma, but still failed to act. 


In 1970, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued a limited ban on asbestos, yet railroad companies continued to use it despite the risks and without warning railroad workers of the potential dangers. If you worked on or for the railroad at any time up until the 1990s, there is a chance you may be in danger of developing mesothelioma or other asbestos-related diseases as a result of the railroad’s reckless and negligent actions.  


Railroad Diesel Exhaust And Lung Cancer Risks


During World War II, at the same time asbestos was being widely used in manufacturing railroad and locomotive parts, the railroad industry rapidly shifted from using steam to diesel fuel to power trains. Over the 1940s, only ten percent of locomotives in service were diesel powered. By the early 1960s, this number increased to more than 95 percent. While diesel may have dominated the industry,  there were also growing concerns during this time that the fumes it gave off could increase lung cancer risks. 


When diesel fuel is combusted, the heat causes chemicals within it to change into a gaseous state. It produces a soot of fine particles, some of which are too small to see. These can easily get inhaled by railroad workers directly in the vicinity, such as engineers, conductors, brakemen, and switchmen, as well as repair workers and those working in locomotive shops. 


The National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that by 1970 scientists were warning that the chemicals within diesel exhaust fumes, such as arsenic, dioxin, benzene and chromium, could increase cancer risks. Despite this, it wasn’t until 2012 that the World Health Organization (WHO) came out and declared diesel exhaust itself a known carcinogen. This puts diesel exhaust in the same risk category as asbestos in terms of being a leading cause of cancer among railroad workers. There are two main categories of lung cancer that can impact railroad workers as a result of breathing in diesel fumes: 


  • Small-cell lung cancer (SCLC): This forms in the lining of the lungs and can be aggressive, growing and spreading to other parts of the body. It accounts for roughly 10 to 15 percent of all lung cancer diagnoses. 
  • Non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC): According to the American Cancer Society, this is one of the less aggressive but more common types of lung cancer, appearing in roughly 85 percent of cases. It contains three sub-types: Adenocarcinoma, which start in the cells which secrete substances such as mucus; Squamous cell carcinoma, which line the airways of the lungs; and Large cell (undifferentiated) carcinoma, which can appear in any part of the lung. Adenocarcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma and the most common types of lung cancer found in railroad workers and are those most likely caused by exposure to diesel exhaust fumes. 


Compensation For Lung Cancer Caused By Diesel Exhaust Fumes and Asbestos


The actions of railroad company executives throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s in knowingly ignoring the hazards posed by diesel exhaust fumes and asbestos put thousands of workers at risk. The Federal Employers Liability Act, or FELA, provides compensation for railroad workers who were injured or contract disease due to their employer’s negligence. If you have been diagnosed with lung cancer due to exposure to diesel exhaust or asbestos, you may be entitled to compensation for medical expenses, lost earnings, and for the pain, suffering, and loss of enjoyment in life you suffer as a result. 


At Shapiro & Appleton, we are dedicated to holding railroad companies accountableto the duties the FELA imposes. Our law firm is nationally recognized for our legal skill in handling railroad injury and disease cases and for the successful outcomes we obtain for railroad clients. To discuss how we can assist you in filing a claim, call (833) 997-1774 or contact our railroad accident and injury lawyers online to request a free confidential consultation today.