Diesel Injury Law

Diesel Injury Law Blog

Railroad Workers & Creosote

Workplace exposures to creosote put railroad workers at higher risk of developing illnesses such as leukemia and cancer.  Creosote is a wood preservative that is applied to railroad ties. Railroad workers are exposed to creosote through tie unloading operations, tie installation and track maintenance. Track or engineering department employees are at particular risk for creosote exposures along with individuals who work in the bridges and building department. Historically, railroads failed to provide proper training and personal protective equipment to their employees which resulted in excess exposures to carcinogenic creosote.

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    What is Creosote?

    Creosote is a chemical mixture used as a pesticide and a wood preservative. Creosote is present in three forms, coal-tar creosote, beechwood creosote, and creosote bush resin. For railroad workers, creosote exposure comes from the coal-tar creosote used to preserve wooden railroad ties, making it the variant of concern. Within the mixture of chemicals that make up coal-tar creosote, those harmful to human health include, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), phenol, and cresols. Coal-tar creosote is identifiable by its thick and oily texture, amber to black color, and how easily it can be set afire.  Many of our clients describe incidences where they lit creosote covered ties on fire in the winter months to stay warm. These fires kicked off a host of carcinogenic fumes.

    Creosote Exposure

    To use creosote as a wood preservative, training and certification is required. Because of this, exposure to the general public is limited.  And yet, railroad workers – who are not certified – are exposed to creosote due to its presence in their workplace.

    Wooden railroad ties are impregnated with creosote, making exposure for railroad workers installing fresh ties unavoidable. After installation, creosote-treated railroad ties emit one-third of the creosote applied to them over the course of their service time. This could lead to further exposure outside of just tie installation. Maintaining the ties also carries with it a harmful risk of exposure. Maintenance of the ties includes removing old ties and replacing them with new ties that are soaked in creosote. Ties also need to be washed which can lead to further creosote exposures.

    Creosote, Cancer, and Other Health Risks

    Exposure to creosote can cause numerous health issues. Creosote contains many “known carcinogens”, including benzene and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (“PAH’s”).  Benzene causes leukemia, including Acute Myeloid LeukemiaMyelodysplastic Syndrome and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  PAH’s are strongly associated with lung, skin and bladder cancers. Many railroad workers experienced creosote exposures to their hands and arms resulting in burns to their skin. Not surprisingly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has determined that coal tar is carcinogenic to humans.

    FELA & Creosote

    Brown v Union Pacific Railroad Company

    $7,500,000 verdict – A former railroad track department employee suffered injuries related to long term exposure to creosote, in addition to other toxins, over the course of his 31-years of employment. The plaintiff claimed that the defendant failed to provide protective equipment (PPE), regularly exposing him to toxic chemicals. Without PPE, his clothes would often become soaked with toxic chemicals such as creosote and degreasing solvents. The plaintiff also alleged that his employers knew of the dangers associated with these substances, and still failed to provide any protection, resulting in the plaintiff’s acute myeloid leukemia.

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