Cancer Risk for Non-Smokers: Silica

The railroad industry provides a huge cancer risk for workers. That includes lung cancer, which can occur even in people who do not smoke. Silica exposure is one of the primary culprits of this.

What are the health hazards of Silica?

Silica is a natural mineral that is found in sand, soil and stone. Silica dust is a well-known cause of lung cancer according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). Approximately 2.2 million US workers are exposed to silica each year according to OSHA.

Common sources of silica exposure for railroad workers are from locomotive sanders which apply sand to the rails in front of locomotive wheels to increase traction. As the steel wheels roll over the sand, it is crushed into a fine dust which can become airborne and enter the lungs. As a result, railroad engineers, conductors and brakemen can be exposed to cancer causing silica dust.  In addition, the different railroad crafts responsible for servicing locomotives can have exposure to silica. Such exposures can occur when workers are filling the locomotive sander tanks at sand towers or fixing sanders on locomotives which are clogged or inoperable for any reason. For many years, railroad workers performed these tasks without the benefit of any respiratory protection.

The Federal Railroad Administration, or FRA, is the federal agency responsible for railroad workplace safety.  In 1998, the FRA published a study concerning locomotive air quality which concluded that: “Ventilation air should be as clean as possible. The air in the railroad environment can be laden with dust and fumes. Intakes should be positioned to reduce intake of such contaminants. Air should be filtered to remove dust, pollen, insects, and other debris. Interior brake venting which introduces odors and other contaminants from the brake air system and which can stir up settled dust should be avoided.” (FRA 1998). This same FRA study relied on a published study done by Frederick Gamst in 1975 which acknowledged that: “Engineers are men with sand in their hair and in their respiratory systems. While switching with his head out the window (and above one of the unit’s trucks, equipped with rail sander pipes), the engineer constantly uses sand to provide additional adhesion of locomotive wheels to the rail, thus preventing slipping during propulsion and sliding during braking. Sandy dust, given momentum by the compressed air blast of the sanders, billows up around the engineer’s head during these operations.” (Gamst 1975).

Who could be exposed?

In addition to silica exposure from locomotive sanders, railroad trackmen, track laborers, and machine operators (i.e.- ballast regulator operators, tamper operators, track broom operators, etc.) can be exposed to ballast dust which contains high levels of silica. In fact, OSHA has recognized that “Industries and operations in which exposure to crystalline silica can occur include, but are not limited to… Railroad track maintenance.” (OSHA “Safety and Health Topics- Crystalline Silica”). Similarly, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has also recognized that railroad workers are commonly over-exposed to silica from ballast dust: “Personal respirable crystalline silica exposure levels of maintenance-of-way railroad workers using granite-based ballast has been evaluated in the United States. For broom operators and ballast regulators, 15 and 23% of samples respectively exceeded the permissible exposure limit of 0.1 mg/m3.” (IARC Monograph 68, 1997).

In 2016 OSHA issued a new Silica Rule to protect workers. In its opening lines, OSHA stated that it was “amending its existing standards for occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica. OSHA has determined that employees exposed to respirable crystalline silica at the previous permissible exposure limits face a significant risk of material impairment to their health. The evidence in the record for this rulemaking indicates that workers exposed to respirable crystalline silica are at increased risk of developing silicosis and other nonmalignant respiratory diseases, lung cancer, and kidney disease.” In the recently updated Silica Rule, OSHA stated that for silica, “studies indicate that there is either no threshold for silica related lung cancer, or that it is at such a low level that workers cumulatively exposed at or below the level allowed by the new PEL of 50 ug/m³ will still be at risk of developing lung cancer.” (OSHA, Federal Register, Vol. 81, No. 58, March 25, 2016).

Not surprisingly, the railroad industry trade group, the AAR, objected to OSHA’s revised Silica Rule. However, thankfully for rail workers, OSHA ignored the AAR and reduced the PEL for silica which will reduce but not completely eliminate the lung cancer risk to railroad workers.

How long have the hazards of silica been known?

The AAR has recognized the health hazards of silica for almost 100 years and shared this information with all its member railroads. As early as 1934 railroad representatives at AAR meetings discussed that, “the conclusion arrived at is that silica is such a body poison as is lead, even though it exerts its maleficent influence, especially with regard to tuberculosis, mainly on the respiratory organs, through which it gains access to the body. But it also impairs the circulatory system, the nervous system, the digestive organs, and the great excretory glands, the kidneys and the liver, so that, should the victim escape death through some respiratory disease, he is more than ordinarily liable to fall before some captain of death whose point d’appui is one of the other functional systems of the body…Further, the silica dust hazard is probably the most widespread and insidious of all hazards in the environment of mankind.” (emphasis added, AAR 1934).

Railroads were also legally required to know what governmental agencies were saying about potential health hazards and to take action to protect employees. As early as 1974, the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommended that industries protect workers from silica hazards.  Some of the recommendations included:

“Section 5 – Informing Employees of Hazards from Free Silica

(a) Each employee exposed to free silica shall be apprised at the

beginning of his employment or assignment to a free silica exposure area of

the hazards, relevant symptoms, appropriate emergency procedures, and

proper conditions and precautions for safe use or exposure.  Workers shall also be advised of the increased risk of impaired health due to the combination of smoking and free silica dust exposure.”

(b) Dust suppression: Moisture shall be added where such addition can substantially reduce the exposure to airborne respirable free silica dust.

(g) Dust monitoring: In order to determine the extent of the

potential silicosis problem, the need for periodic monitoring of the

operations where exposure to free silica is suspected is required.

(NIOSH 1974). Certain industries and companies took action many decades ago to protect workers from silica exposure, others did not.

What did the railroads do in response to this knowledge about silica hazards?

Most railroads ignored the safety recommendations they received from the AAR and governmental safety organizations. They did not test the workplace for silica dust levels back when the heaviest exposures occurred in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Nor did they provide respiratory protection to most crafts, despite known silica dust exposure. In the same way, the railroads generally failed to provide any warnings to workers about the fact that silica dust could cause lung disease and cancer. In fact, some railroads classified silica dust as a “nuisance dust” (i.e.- non cancer causing) which was inaccurate and misleading to employees.

Over the years Doran and Murphy PLLC has represented many railroad workers for silica-related lung disease and lung cancer in cases brought under the FELA.

Non-Smoker Lung Cancer for Railroad Workers
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