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The Dangers of Toxic Silica Exposure for Railroad Workers

What is silica?

When railroad track workers operate tools or heavy machinery that disturb the railroad ballast, toxic silica dust is released into the air. Silica, a naturally occurring mineral, can be found in materials such as rock, concrete, clay, sand, stone, and soil. Today, thousands of railroad workers are part of the estimated 2.3 million American workers that are exposed to silica in the workplace. Although silica particles are microscopic, the inhalation of these toxic particles causes cancer and other irreversible, harmful diseases.

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    Which railroad workers are exposed to silica?

    Railroad workers who complete track repairs, track maintenance, or tasks such as demolition, concrete work, masonry, construction, or abrasive blasting are at risk of silica exposure. Railroads also use sand (containing silica) to provide traction between the wheels and rails. When railroad workers cut, drill, hammer, or crush materials containing silica, dust containing silica particles is released into the air. This dust is inhaled by railroad workers and it can get trapped in their lungs and scar the lung tissue. But even those who do not repair tracks are at risk. Locomotive engineers who spray traction sand onto the tracks below are exposed to the dust clouds the sand produces.

    Why is silica exposure dangerous?

    Silica dust particles are a known carcinogen that puts workers at risk for lung cancer, COPD, kidney disease, and other respiratory diseases. Sarcoidosis, previously a disease of unknown cause, has been linked with transport industries and respirable crystalline silica. But the most common health hazard is silicosis, an irreversible, disabling, and sometimes fatal fibrotic lung disease. One of its most serious forms, acute silicosis, can develop within a few months to less than 2 years of exposure to silica. It is almost always fatal. A chest X-ray is needed to diagnose silicosis and monitor the progression of the disease.

    How are workers protected from silica exposure?

    OSHA’s previous permissible exposure limits (PELs) for silica were outdated and did not adequately protect worker health. In 2016, OSHA published a new PEL for respirable crystalline silica. In all industry sectors, the new PEL limited worker exposure to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air. OSHA also created requirements for exposure assessment, respiratory protection, medical surveillance, hazard communication, and record-keeping. But OSHA did not do enough to enforce the new standards, leaving workers vulnerable to unsafe working environments.

    Are railroad workers now safe from silica exposure?

    No. Even today, many railroad workers suffer regular, unsafe exposures to silica sand. The industrial hygiene programs of the railroads have often fallen short of identifying the tasks and areas where breathing protection should be provided. Moreover, the on track equipment utilized by railroad workers is often inadequately maintained and lacking in air pressurized cabins, weather stripping or even air conditioning, which leads to excess silica exposures.

    If you or a loved one worked for a railroad and have an illness related to silica exposure, contact Hughes Law Offices today. Call 312-877-5588.


    Source 1: https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.04.19.22274019v1

    Source 2: Association of American Railroads, OSHA’s Silica Rulemaking: Railroad Industry (March 1, 2016).

    Source 3: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31341766/

    Source 4: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34102140/

    Source 5: Eastridge v. Norfolk S. Ry. Co. 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 125126 (N.D. Ala. Feb. 15, 2008).

    Source 6: https://www.consumersafety.org/product-lawsuits/silica-lawsuits/

    Source 7: https://www.necanet.org/docs/default-source/safety/oshas-public-information-on-silica-setember-2017.pdf?sfvrsn=22699875_3

    Source 8: https://www.osha.gov/laws-regs/standardinterpretations/1996-08-20

    Source 9: https://www.npr.org/2019/01/20/685821214/before-black-lung-the-hawks-nest-tunnel-disaster-killed-hundreds

    Source 10: https://www.lungcancercenter.com/who-lung-cancer-affects/railroad-workers/

    Source 11: https://www.osha.gov/silica-crystalline/general-industry-info

    Source 12: https://www.oig.dol.gov/public/reports/oa/2021/02-21-003-10-105.pdf#:~:text=We%20found%20that%20OSHA%E2%80%99s%20diminished%20enforcement%20efforts%20left,protections%20to%20minimize%20workers%E2%80%99%20exposures%20to%20hazardous%20conditions

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