Locomotive Engineers and Conductors

Locomotive engineers and conductors are at increased risk for developing cancer later in life. Why?  Because most of them endured decades of exposures to a variety of toxins, including diesel exhaust, asbestos and secondhand smoke.  These railroad exposures can lead to a variety of cancers, including lung, bladder, laryngeal, kidney, stomach and colorectal. We serve locomotive engineers, brakemen and conductors diagnosed with cancer.

Diesel Exhaust, Locomotive Crews & Cancer

Diesel exhaust exposures were – and unfortunately still are – a part of the daily diet for railroad locomotive engineers and conductors. Many of our clients describe severe diesel exposures via practices like deadheading on trailing locomotives, running long-nose forward and traveling through tunnels. They were often assigned poorly maintained, decades-old locomotives running on high-sulfur diesel fuel. These old smokers allowed exhaust to pour into the cab through the open windows and improperly sealed floors and walls. Lots of the engineers and brakemen carried rolls of duct tape in their grips which they used to tape over cracks in the floors, walls, and windows in an effort to keep the exhaust out of the cab.

One retired engineer may have said it best:

“A 4000 horsepower locomotive burns 240 gallons an hour in notch 8 under full load and an equipment blower in the car body, next to the engine, force feeds polluted air into the electrical cabinet inside the cab where the crew sits.  10-plus hours a day stuck in the cab breathing dirty air and management doesn’t care.”

CSX reports on its website that a typical train hauling 3,000 tons of freight 500 miles will consume around 3,050 gallons of diesel fuel. When you consider that locomotive crews spend their entire day riding in a piece of equipment that burned through thousands of gallons of diesel fuel, it’s not hard to imagine why spouses make them change out of their work clothes in the garage. They’ve essentially spent their entire workday in a diesel-fueled smokestack.

Diesel exhaust is now recognized as a known lung carcinogen by the World Health Organization and our experts can tie diesel exhaust exposures to bladder, laryngeal, throat, stomach, colorectal and kidney cancers.  For a detailed discussion on why diesel exhaust causes cancer, click here.

diesel exhaust cancer

Asbestos, Locomotive Engineers & Cancer

Diesel exhaust isn’t the only workplace exposure for locomotive engineers and conductors. Asbestos insulation was historically used in cab heater lines, steam boilers, steam generators and the Y pipe that leads to the cab heater. One of the workers who removed that asbestos from locomotive cabs has testified that when he was removing it, the asbestos was routinely in a damaged/friable condition – a condition which would have contaminated the cab’s air with asbestos fibers. Locomotive crews have testified that they regularly rested their boots on the insulated heating pipe, something they probably wouldn’t have done had the railroad bothered to tell them that the pipe was covered in asbestos. As late as the 1980s, locomotive manufacturers were still relying upon asbestos-containing parts in their new locomotives.  BNSF Railroad’s asbestos removal program did not begin in earnest until December 1997 and BNSF was still removing asbestos from its locomotives as of 2009.

In addition to the asbestos exposures inside the locomotives, many brakeman, conductors and engineers would have been exposed to asbestos via the composition brake shoes used on the locomotives and cars.  Before they pulled the cabooses out of service, crews in the cabooses were exposed to asbestos dust via the application of the train brakes.  These exposures were particularly bad in the Central Appalachian Coal Belt where crews operated heavy coal trains down steep grades, creating plumes of brake dust.  These asbestos containing brake shoes and linings, often sold under the brand name COBRA, were phased out around 1980.  A more detailed discussion of the use of asbestos by the railroad industry can be found here.

These workplace asbestos exposures can lead to mesothelioma and various cancers, including lung, laryngeal, stomach, colorectal and kidney. The hazards of asbestos have been recognized since the 1930s and unfortunately, today’s railroad workers are likely still experiencing asbestos exposures.

Secondhand Smoke, Railroad Conductors & Cancer

We represent many railroad workers who were lifelong non-smokers. Unfortunately for them, a majority of their coworkers smoked cigarettes. Secondhand smoke inside locomotive cabs and cabooses was notoriously bad in the 1970s and 80s. As a result, we have represented locomotive engineers who were never smokers – but were still diagnosed with lung cancer.

Passive or secondhand smoke has been designated as a “known human carcinogen” by the EPA. The railroads knew that fact for decades, but many of them did not wholly ban smoking until around 2004-2005. Even after that, few of the railroads actually enforced their smoking policy.

Amtrak may be among the worst offenders when it comes to secondhand smoke. Amtrak did not ban its passengers from smoking on its trains until 2004, around 15 years after smoking was banned on domestic airlines. Why is that? Because Amtrak made a lot of money catering to travelers who smoked. Amtrak performed air monitoring in 1992 that showed its workers were being exposed to dangerous levels of cigarette smoke. Despite that clear notice, Amtrak chose to permit smoking onboard its trains because banning smoking would have impacted its revenue. Any Amtrak onboard services worker diagnosed with cancer attributable to cigarette smoke likely has a strong FELA claim.

Cancers known to be caused by smoking include lung, bladder, kidney, liver, colon, rectal, throat, esophageal, laryngeal, stomach, pancreas and cervix.

diesel exhaust cancer

Other Exposures and Diseases

Our clients have described a whole host of other toxic exposures while working in locomotives, rail yards and industries. Many endured regular exposures to creosote and silica – two other known carcinogens. Some locomotive crews worked herbicide spray trains and endured significant herbicide exposures. Railroads frequently serve industries such as steel mills and refineries which in turn exposes the conductors and brakeman working on the ground to coke emissions and chemical fumes (among other things). These unique railroad exposures can lead to the cancers described above and to other illnesses, such as Acute Myeloid Leukemia (AML), Myelodysplastic Syndrome, Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, Multiple Myeloma, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, Silicosis and Reactive Airway Disease.  The lawyers at Diesel Injury Law, working alongside our industrial hygiene experts, will take all such exposures into account when building your case against the railroad.

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