Asbestos: Railroads' Quiet Killer

Hoey Farina Team
  • Hoey & Farina, P.C.
  • FELA Lawyers / Railroad Injury Attorneys
  • 1-888-425-1212


As early as 1920, railroad management knew that asbestos was a health hazard for employees. Asbestos, however, was deemed indispensable as insulation between a locomotive’s steam boiler and its protective outer shell.

As a result, most railroads did nothing to abate this health hazard or warn railroad employees of the danger.

By federal regulation, locomotive boilers had to be periodically inspected. This involved removing the outer shell and stripping the asbestos insulation off the boiler. During this process, the air in the roundhouse was filled with millions of microscopic asbestos fibers, each potentially fatal to the unlucky soul who inhaled it.

After the boiler was stripped clean of asbestos and inspected, the process was repeated as asbestos was lagged onto the boiler before the shell was installed. During the re-lagging process, the air in the roundhouse was again filled with tiny dagger-like asbestos fibers.

It is not known how many railroad workers became sick and died from exposure to asbestos as a result of the lagging process, but certainly there was a great loss of life due to asbestos exposure in the roundhouse.


By 1970, it was indisputable that asbestos exposure caused a variety of illnesses including lung cancer and mesothelioma, a rare cancer of the chest. One would think that an industry as sophisticated as the railroad would be aware of, and take precautions against, exposing their employees to such a dangerous material. Not so.

There is a certain commuter railroad that owns a large, old, steam-heated commuter rail station. A labyrinth of pipes in steam tunnels beneath the station provides the heat to the downtown station. Starting in 1985, and continuing for many years thereafter, this commuter railroad assigned its employees to remove and repair the asbestos insulation covering the steam pipes in the tunnels. For years these employees worked day in and day out in the tunnels under the station removing and replacing asbestos.

Much like the old days in the steam locomotive roundhouse, these railroad pipefitters breathed in copious amounts of deadly asbestos fibers. Other railroad employees called the workers “the snowmen” due to the fact when they emerged from the tunnels at the end of the day they were covered from head to toe with white asbestos dust.

It was not until the late 1970s, when the connection was made between the prevalence of mesothelioma in railroad workers and their on-the-job exposure to asbestos, that the first FELA - Federal Employers’ Liability Act asbestos case was filed. Unfortunately, scores of railroad roundhouse workers had already died due to asbestos exposure without any compensation from the railroad.

Asbestos is still present to a great extend in railroad buildings and repair shops, especially older structures.


  • Areas sprayed for fireproofing
  • Pipe and boiler insulation
  • Wall and ceiling insulation
  • Floor and ceiling tiles
  • Putties, caulks and cements
  • Roofing shingles
  • Siding shingles
  • Wall and ceiling texture
  • Joint compound
  • Brake and clutch linings

In addition, for years railroads provided asbestos rope – soaked in diesel fuel – to section gangs. The rope when burned was used to heat rail in order to make repairs.

The same indestructible quality that makes asbestos such an efficient insulator also makes it wreak havoc with the body when it is inhaled. The body cannot break down asbestos fibers. Once they become lodged in the lungs or other tissue, they remain in place and cause various diseases. Asbestos has been mainly linked to:


A non-cancerous lung disease. Asbestos fibers in the lungs cause scarring which results in shortness of breath. There is no treatment for asbestosis and it is typically disabling or fatal.


Lung cancer causes the largest number of deaths from working with asbestos. If you work with asbestos regularly and smoke cigarettes, you are 90 times more likely to develop lung cancer than someone who does not work with asbestos or smoke.


A rare cancer involving the thin membrane around the lungs, chest, abdomen and heart. The only known cause of mesothelioma is asbestos exposure. Mesothelioma is always fatal. In its end stages, the victim literally drowns as body fluids fill the lungs.


Asbestos will continue to be a health concern far into the future, primarily due to the continued use of asbestos containing products. In 1999, the United States produced 6,000 metric tons of asbestos, and imported 15,000 metric tons of asbestos. Last year, the U.S. used an estimated 15,000 metric tons of asbestos, with the rest exported or stockpiled. Worldwide 1,790,000 metric tons of asbestos was mined last year.

Asbestos remains a real health hazard in the workplace, and everyone should be aware of the danger posed by asbestos exposure.

If you are concerned about asbestos in your workplace, please call Hoey & Farina for a free legal advice with one of our experienced railroad injury attorneys / asbestos injury lawyers.

If you or a loved one have suffered a work injury or wrongful death on the railroad, call an experienced FELA lawyer / railroad injury attorney at Hoey & Farina, P.C. at 1-888-425-1212, or complete this form, for your FREE CONSULTATION. Hoey & Farina represents clients throughout the United States.


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Chicago, Illinois 60605
Main: (312) 939-1212
Toll Free: (888) 425-1212
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Representing clients throughout the United States.


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