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Railroad Workers – Lead Exposures

Railroad workers engaged in welding, torch cutting, rivet busting, sandblasting and demolition operations on equipment, bridges and buildings painted with lead-based paint may have experienced toxic exposures to lead. Lead is typically absorbed into the body through inhalation and ingestion. The crafts especially at risk include members of the Bridges & Buildings Department along with shop employees in both the car and locomotive/mechanical departments.

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    Who Is Exposed?

    OSHA has written extensively on lead exposures. Workers who repair and repaint steel bridges covered in lead paint are most likely to be exposed. Historically, the paint used on steel bridges was comprised of up to 40% lead. Workers in a railroad’s Bridges & Buildings Department were often tasked with removing the old lead paint via abrasive blasting operations. These same workers would often weld on these painted bridges and engage in torch burning and torch cutting. Without appropriate personal protective equipment and safety protocols, all of these activities would have resulted in dangerous lead exposures.

    One retired Norfolk Southern worker described performing sandblasting on railroad bridges painted with lead paint in the early 1980’s. The work was absolutely filthy. The workers used nothing but handkerchiefs to try to limit the amount of dust they had to breathe. In that case, our industrial hygiene expert determined that the B&B worker was exposed to lead levels that were 50,000 times higher than the current OSHA limit.

    Today, lead remediation work is typically contracted out by the railroads to environmental firms. But in 2013, OSHA cited Illinois Central Railroad and fined them $110,500 for allowing workers in Chicago to demolish a bridge that contained lead-based paint without proper safety and health protection. The railroad was charged with one willful (defined as “plain indifference to employee safety and health”) and six other serious violations. OSHA classifies violations as serious violations when “there is substantial probability that death or serious physical harm could result from a hazard about which the employer knew or should have known.” Illinois Central was cited for not providing appropriate respiratory protection and clothing, failure to provide changing and storage areas for clothing in order to prevent contamination, as well as failing to utilize engineering and ventilation controls in order to reduce lead exposure. The railroad was also fined because its workers were allowed to eat and drink in areas where they were being exposed to lead.

    Illnesses Associated with Occupational Lead Exposures

    The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states that the toxicity of lead has been known for 2,000 years. Numerous epidemiology studies on thousands of lead-exposed workers reveal that they are at significantly increased risk for stomach cancer. Lead exposures are also linked to brain and kidney cancers.

    In addition to lead being a carcinogen, prolonged lead exposure can cause lead poisoning and other health complications such as nausea, irritability, depression, and forgetfulness. Those with prolonged lead exposures may also be at an increased risk of having high blood pressure, neuropathy, heart disease, and kidney disease.

    There is also the concern of home contamination where workers may take home lead particles after being exposed at work. This can occur when lead remains on clothes, skin, hair, or tools. This has been a known risk since as early as 1914, where wives of painters who washed their husband’s clothing suffered from lead poisoning. Federal agencies recognize this potential of family exposure and monitor family risk in response to the 1992 Workers’ Family Protection Act. Children are especially susceptible to suffering from lead-related illnesses, even at very low levels.

    Reducing Lead Exposures for Railroad Workers

    Lead exposures can be drastically minimized when proper precautions are taken. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and other agencies have lead surveillance and regulation programs in order to monitor lead exposure levels. Specifically, OSHA has standards for the general industry, shipyards, and construction. OSHA regulations limit permissible exposure levels, require employees and employers to monitor lead exposures, and require that employees be provided with protective clothing and respiratory protection when necessary. In work environments that have high levels of lead, employers are required to provide clean changing areas, handwashing stations, showers when feasible, and provide eating facilities that are as free as practical from lead particles in order to prevent cross-contamination. OSHA regulations place a great deal of responsibility on employers rather than employees, and it is even the employer’s duty to ensure that employees who have airborne exposures above the acceptable limit to wash their hands and face prior to eating or drinking.

    Representative Lead Cases

    $1,851,075 verdict – A 50-year-old renovator and painter was diagnosed with lead poisoning and suffered from short-term memory loss, chronic fatigue, and brain damage after allegedly being exposed to lead-based paint. Plaintiff alleged that the defendant misled him by telling him there was no lead-based paint used on the property he was working on, refused to provide proper protection, and failed to provide a safe work environment. In 2018, the court entered judgment for the plaintiff. Vichas v. T&T Complete Landscaping L.L.C.

    $10.2 million verdicts, $950,000 settlement – Four workers renovating New York’s Grand Central Station were diagnosed with lead poisoning as a result of demolition work and torch cutting on surfaces covered in lead paint. After a few months of work, they underwent blood testing which revealed that their blood had 3 and 4 times more lead that the accepted toxicity limits. Their injuries included brain damage, attention deficit disorders, headaches, and neuropathy. The oldest plaintiff, who was 62, settled during the trial for $950,000. Three other plaintiffs, ranging in age from 26 to 54 years old at the time of the lead poisoning diagnosis, received jury verdict awards. They received $5.35 million, $2.38 million and $2.48 million in their verdicts. In total, the 4 employees received $11,165,000. Hagins v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Lehrer-McGovern Bovis; ETS Contracting Inc.

    If you or a loved one suspect that you may have an illness related to railroad lead exposures, contact Diesel Injury Law to learn more today. Call 312-877-5588 today.

    We are providing the above-referenced case summaries to inform visitors about actual case fact patterns and rulings. Unless specifically noted, the cases summarized herein were not handled by attorneys at Hughes Law Offices.

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