Silica Sand

Railroad workers are at elevated risk of lung cancer and other pulmonary conditions as a result of occupational exposures to silica.

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    What is Silica?

    Crystalline silica is a naturally occurring mineral that can be found as a constituent of rock, sand, and soil. In addition to being naturally occurring, silica is present in manmade materials as well, such as brick, mortar, glass, and concrete. The deterioration or destruction of  silica-containing materials results in the release of dust containing tiny crystalline silica particles.

    Do Silica Exposures Cause Cancer?

    Yes. Silica is classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) as a Group 1 carcinogen.1 Group 1 carcinogens are toxins that are known to cause cancer. Examples of other group 1 carcinogens include asbestos, benzene, tobacco, and plutonium.

    What Cancers are Caused by Railroad Silica Exposures?

    Railroad worker respirable silica dust exposures can cause lung cancer as well as other life-threatening diseases such as silicosis. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with one of the following conditions, you may be eligible for compensation under the FELA.


    What is Silicosis?

    Silicosis refers to the scarring and stiffening of the lungs that is caused by long-term silica exposure. It is an irreversible lung disease characterized by a progressive cough, shortness of breath, and chronic fatigue. These symptoms may be mild at first, but can become increasingly severe over time. If the condition continues to worsen, it can result in serious disability and death.

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    How are Railroad Workers Exposed to Silica?

    Railroad track department or maintenance of way workers often suffer dangerous silica exposures while working with and around track ballast. Track ballast is usually composed of crushed stone. Granite and limestone are the most common types of rock that are used to produce track ballast, and both types of rock contain silica. As a result, track ballast can contain significant amounts of silica dust. Granite ballast may contain as much as 50% silica. Workers who operate ballast machines, such as ballast regulators and tampers, and track department workers dumping ballast have historically suffered some of the worst silica exposures.

    Silica is also the primary constituent of locomotive sand. Locomotives are equipped with sanding systems that spread sand onto the rails. The extra traction provided by the sand can be crucial on inclines or when a locomotive needs to stop in an emergency. However, this results in large amounts of silica dust being released into the air. Plumes of silica enveloped locomotives and the engineers and conductors within those cabs suffered dangerous silica exposures.

    Locomotive sanding systems require tons of silica sand. The railroads fill sand towers near their locomotive shops or service tracks where locomotives are fueled and sanded. Older sanding systems frequently spilled sand, exposing the laborers and other shop workers to dangerous levels of silica. We represented an Amtrak laborer who described having to load sand into locomotives from bags of sand. He was not provided with a respirator. His exposures would have been extreme.

    The fact is, because silica becomes windborne, all of the workers in the yards near the sanding operations would have had varying levels of silica exposures. In addition, railroads notoriously failed to clean up piles of silica in the yards. This silica would blow across the yards exposing train crews and car inspectors to unsafe levels of silica.

    How Can Dangerous Silica Exposures be Prevented?

    Because silica particles are so small, individuals working around silica dust need respirators in order to adequately protect themselves. The railroads were aware that silica exposure was causing railroad employees to develop silicosis since the 1930s. However, it wasn’t until the late 1980s that most railroads initiated respirator programs designed to safeguard shop workers. Locomotive crews still suffer regular silica exposures. As a result of the railroad industry’s head in the sand approach to safety, generations of railroad workers have endured needless silica exposures.

    What can I do if I was Exposed to Silica?

    If you or a loved one was exposed to silica while working for a railroad and have been diagnosed with a related disease, the attorneys at Hughes Law Offices may be able to help. These are complicated cases that require experienced attorneys. While you and your loved ones focus on recovery, let us do the work needed to prove your case. Contact Hughes Law Offices today at 312-877-5588 for a free attorney consultation.

    Railroad Silica Verdicts & Settlements

    Verdict (Ohio, 2018)


    The Plaintiff was a former trackman employed by Conrail from 1976 to 2013. During his career with the railroad he endured chronic exposure to silica dust, diesel exhaust, and asbestos.  Following his retirement, he was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer at the age...

    Verdict (Montana, 2010)


    A former railroad engineer developed pulmonary fibrosis, a fatal lung disease, after a 29-year career working for BNSF. During his employment, he was exposed to silica dust from railroad ballast and locomotive sand, diesel exhaust while riding in locomotives, and asbestos from locomotive brake shoes...

    Settlement (New York, 1999)


    A locomotive engineer was employed by Conrail and its predecessors from 1956 until his death in 1991. In 1989, the engineer was assigned to operate a pusher locomotive in hilly terrain. While helping to push trains over hills, his locomotive...

    Hughes Law Offices is providing railroad silica case histories 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.


    [1] IARC Publications Website – Arsenic, Metals, Fibres, and Dusts 

    [2] Silica, Crystalline – Overview | Occupational Safety and Health Administration

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    Verdicts and Settlements

    Survey of Railroad Cancer Claims

    Hughes Law Offices is providing case histories 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.
    See All Verdicts



    Railroad carman died of pulmonary fibrosis following 18 years of welding.



    Locomotive engineer in his early 60’s developed diesel asthma.



    Railroad mechanic diagnosed with squamous cell oropharyngeal cancer.



    Trainman died of nasopharyngeal cancer as a result of working on-board locomotives filled with diesel exhaust.



    Retired railroad employee died of lung cancer as a result of workplace asbestos exposure.



    61 year old railroad conductor diagnosed with interstitial fibrosis and an increased risk of lung cancer as a result of exposure to diesel exhaust.

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