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Diesel engines were, and have been, laden with asbestos. Nevertheless, railroads tell workers and juries otherwise all the time. As a practicing railroad/FELA attorney, I heard a rumor years back that rail corporations had eliminated asbestos from the nation’s diesel engines. These are the same engines that you see railroad engineers and conductors operating all across the United States.


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One would assume that the railroads got rid of all the asbestos on these engines during the 1970s, when it came to light that even tiny amounts of the mineral could get lodged in a worker’s lungs and cause of lung cancer and mesothelioma. The truth is much more sinister.

Yes, railroads contended in lawsuits all around the country that their freight engines did not have any asbestos on board, and if there was a tiny amount of asbestos insulation left on engines in the last decade, it was harmless. The railroad side of the story is that some asbestos in “good condition”, will not fray and will not create invisible microscopic fibers that travel through the air into the lungs.

Guess what? it’s a big lie.

How has the big lie been exposed? First, and probably most important, is that rail workers removed asbestos from these diesel engines as part of their daily routine jobs. For example, up in Pennsylvania (PA), Conrail had its workers remove asbestos from numerous locomotive engines for years. There was so much asbestos on the engines that Conrail management realized that they could make money by removing it. They reached out to other railroads and offered to remove the asbestos from the other railroad diesel engines because they had the right shops and the licensed workers who knew how to remove or abate the asbestos.

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One prominent railroad/FELA lawyer found a whistleblower employed with Conrail who was willing to talk about the daily routine of removing the fraying asbestos from train engines day after day. I obtained a copy of the whistleblower’s deposition and made an effort to contact him.

Conrail was broken up, and parts of the railroad were taken over by CSX. Other parts were taken over by Norfolk Southern. The whistleblower went to work for Norfolk Southern for the last few years of his career, before retiring. I made contact with the whistleblower, and he was amazed that railroad defense lawyers were telling juries that there was never toxic or airborne asbestos on locomotives.

Keep in mind that the whistleblower was sent by Conrail to obtain a contractor’s license to be able to work at asbestos removal. He learned all the terrible consequences of asbestos when it is allowed to become airborne. He learned that even microscopic amounts of asbestos in the air could cause mesothelioma or lung cancer. He said his training also taught him that if you are an asbestos worker and also a pack-a-day cigarette smoker, your chances of getting lung cancer increase something like 80 times a nonsmoker’s chances.

Most importantly, he talked about how the asbestos was removed from pipes and other equipment on a very large number of diesel freight engines. The removal of the asbestos was occurring during the 1990s and into the early 2000s.

Needless to say, a few of the railroad attorneys attending his deposition were ready to crawl under the conference room table and hide. They knew just how devastating this truth was to the fictions railroads and their forensic experts had been spouting to juries for the last 15 years.

Indeed, rail companies pay several of the same several industrial hygiene and industrial safety forensic “experts” to testify at trials that either there was no asbestos on diesel engines at all or that workers only dealt with a type of asbestos “tape” that never crumbles, frays or release particles into the air. Would you think that these forensic experts who have been paid hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years by the railroads are believable?

In fact, railroads played hide the ball for decades. They purposefully suppressed tests of engines when those tests showed what they already knew: Asbestos-insulating materials were in a number of places on engines, and the stuff was fraying and getting airborne. Even more to the point, rail companies deliberately never took valid air samples to learn how much microscopic asbestos was entering crew cabs while trains were moving along tracks and vibrating.

Vibration causes asbestos fibers to free themselves and travel through the air, especially the heated air forced into the cab of a locomotive. Any of the fibers from around the open areas under the engine floor can also entrain and get into the crew cab space. What is terrible about toxic asbestos is that mesothelioma and other cancers turn up 15-50 years after the fibers lodge in the lungs.

The railroad fiction has been destroyed.

Railroad workers — including engineers, conductors and car repair workers — would have been exposed to a potentially significant amoun of airborne asbestos if they worked on and around engines during the 1970s and through the late 1990s. Of course, truck repair workers, shop workers and all other rail employees were sloa potentially exposed to asbestos on the job, but that is beyond the scope of this article.


About the Editors: The Shapiro, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, which has offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.

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