image of lungs

Everyone knows how dangerous railroad work can be. Injury statistics speak for themselves. A large number of investigations and extensive news stories have highlighted the inherent dangers of railroad work, especially in this era of Precision Scheduled Railroading. The risks are wide-ranging and include the hazards of being hit by moving equipment in railroad yards, derailments, striking large trucks at crossings, falling off train cars, lifting injuries, slip and fall injuries, and so many more. Railroad workers are also at increased risk of cancer and lung disease if they have been exposed to diesel exhaust, asbestos, silica, or other toxic substances. One type of serious lung disease that all railroad workers should be aware of is hypersensitivity pneumonitis (or “HP” for short).

So what is hypersensitivity pneumonitis?

The National Institute of Health (NIH) warns that hypersensitivity pneumonitis “happens in some people after they breathe in certain substances in the environment, such as mold or the skin cells shed by animals with fur. These substances trigger the immune system and cause short- or long-term inflammation in the lungs. This inflammation prevents the lungs from working properly and can make it harder to breathe. Some types of hypersensitivity pneumonitis can be treated by avoiding the substance that is causing the condition or with medicines. Without treatment, hypersensitivity pneumonitis can cause permanent damage to the lungs.”

Symptoms vary from person to person and can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • tiredness
  • cough
  • fever
  • headache
  • aches and pains

What causes hypersensitivity pneumonitis?

Railroad workers are at risk for developing hypersensitivity pneumonitis if they are regularly exposed to unsanitary work environments which contain:

  • Bird feathers
  • Bird droppings
  • Dead animals, such as mice, rats, etc.
  • Mold
  • Bacteria from moisture such as from rotting grains that are spilled in rail yards
  • Chemicals or substances that contain isocyanates such as certain paints, polyurethane, hard foam, spray foams such as “Great Stuff” and many others.
  • Wood dust

If the condition is caught early and the substance (“environmental agent”) causing the symptoms is avoided, the hypersensitivity pneumonitis may resolve by itself. Unfortunately, often times workers don’t know about this condition or how hazardous the exposures can be. Repeated exposures can cause workers to become “sensitized” to the substance, which can lead to worsening of the symptoms and disease. It is important to know that hypersensitivity pneumonitis is also known to affect certain people who are more susceptible to exposures, whether from their genetic make-up or from sensitization. Unlike certain lung diseases such as asbestosis or silicosis which require prolonged, heavy exposures, hypersensitivity pneumonitis often results from low-level exposures. These repeated low-level exposures can cause chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis which can lead to other serious conditions such as pulmonary fibrosis (lung scarring). The good news is that only about 5% of workers with acute hypersensitivity pneumonitis go on to develop chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis (CHP) according to the American Lung Association.

What treatment is available for hypersensitivity pneumonitis or chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis?

The most successful treatment for hypersensitivity pneumonitis is to avoid exposures to the responsible environmental agent. However, once the condition becomes chronic, treatment ranges from medications, supplemental oxygen and even lung transplantation. Obviously, your physician will be the best source of information about treatment options which will depend on everyone’s individual situation.

The bottom line

If you are a railroad worker, you should be aware that hypersensitivity pneumonitis and chronic hypersensitivity pneumonitis are serious diseases that can be very disabling and which could lead to death. Workers MUST avoid any hazardous substances that can cause these conditions. If you or someone you love would like to know more about this topic or if you have been diagnosed with either of these lung diseases, call the railroad lung injury attorneys at Doran and Murphy at 1-800-374-2144 to find out about your legal rights.