rail worker

The potential hazards of diesel exhaust have been studied since the 1950s. In fact, one of the earliest studies investigating whether diesel exhaust was capable of causing cancer involved railroad workers. In 1955, the United States Public Health Service published its landmark “Public Health Monograph No. 36.” This well-known study found that railroad workers employed in the “operating” departments, where they were exposed to diesel exhaust, had a much higher chance of getting cancer than “non-operating” railroad workers. The study concluded that the higher rates of cancer were due to diesel exhaust exposure, noting that: “operating railroad workers included engineers, firemen, brakemen, conductors, switchmen, and roundhouse personnel, that is, workers exposed to the inhalation of coal soot and oil fumes from diesel engines and fuel and lubricating oils, which contain carcinogenic polycyclic hydrocarbons.”

From the very beginning, the nation’s railroads were well-aware of these early published reports and the likelihood that diesel exhaust was dangerous. In fact, a large group of railroad claim agents gathered in Washington, DC, in 1955 to talk about these diesel exhaust health hazards and the fact that employee claims were being made for compensation under the Federal Employers Liability Act (FELA). The claim agents who attended this meeting were employed by the largest railroads in the country at the time: ATSF, B&O, C&O, CN, Chicago and North Western (CNW), Erie, Grand Trunk Western (GTW), L&N, MKT (Katy), MoPac, New York Central, Norfolk &Western (NW), Pennsylvania, Southern Pacific (SP), Union Pacific (UP), and many others. According to meeting minutes, the claim agents were advised that diesel exhaust was comprised of many different gaseous substances, that “certain of these gases…are to be accepted as constituting a threat to human health,” and that some of the gases were “cancerogens” which could cause cancer.

In 1965, the railroad industry trade group, the Association of American Railroads (AAR), sponsored a large meeting of all the chief medical officers of the nation’s railroads to address, among other things, the hazards of diesel exhaust. Again present were representatives from the largest railroads in the country, many of which are still operating today or are operating through successor railroads. These railroad physicians talked about the increasing number of employee claims for pulmonary disease and cancer. One physician warned all those in attendance that: “This is not a new tenet, but more and more litigation in this field is being presented, and I am sure that none of us are so naïve that we are not cognizant of the problems arising in our shops and roundhouses due to air pollution from diesel exhaust and other air contaminants.”

During the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, additional studies about diesel exhaust were carried out by various physicians, including most notably a group of doctors affiliated with Harvard Medical School, led by Dr. Eric Garshick, who had funding from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and National Institute of Health (NIH). As part of the Garshick studies, the death certificates of over 50,000 railroad workers were reviewed. After years of exhaustive research and investigation, the scientific team found that railroad workers with the highest levels of diesel exhaust were more likely to die from lung cancer than persons without diesel exhaust exposure.

Not surprisingly, certain railroads were very concerned about the Garshick studies as far back as 1980, long before the studies were even published. The railroads and their industry trade group, the AAR, openly debated about whether the rail industry should cooperate with the Garshick scientific team or not. Our law firm has uncovered documents showing that one railroad representative wrote in August 1980 that railroads were worried that the results of any published studies about diesel exhaust “would probably lead to an increased amount of FELA litigation.” Another railroad representative noted in the same time frame that “I feel that we would be better off to cooperate and participate, thereby at least giving us some input and voice in the methods and procedures used.”

Thankfully, the railroads were not able to change or alter the results of the Garshick studies, the first of which was published in 1987. Even after the Garshick team’s findings were published, the railroads continued to hire experts to attack the conclusion that diesel exhaust could cause lung cancer or that rail workers were even exposed to diesel exhaust. These railroad efforts will be discussed in Part 2 of this blog which can be accessed here.

Despite all of the convincing evidence that diesel exhaust caused cancer, most railroads took no action to warn or educate employees about diesel exhaust hazards. Nor did they begin providing respiratory protection to employees to protect against exposures. These failures make railroads responsible to pay compensation to railroad employees who develop cancer caused by diesel exhaust exposure. This is true even if the railroad worker has been retired for many years and/or if the worker smoked cigarettes. If you or a loved one has cancer, call the experienced attorneys at Doran and Murphy today so we can discuss your legal rights.