I am revisiting important asbestos health and safety lessons in this article, “Delayed Russian Roulette.” Railroads such as Norfolk Southern (NS), CSX, Conrail, and others are learning hard lessons; after decades of neglecting asbestos insulation workplace safety in North Carolina (NC), Virginia (VA) and every other state they operated in. A dramatic increase in asbestos caused mesothelioma and other cancers in its workers has resulted . The mesotheliomas have killed not only engineers, conductors, car men, and locomotive repair workers, but have also caused deaths of supervisors such as trainmasters, and yardmasters. Toxic asbestos fibers do not choose between rank and file and supervisors. So why do I say these railroads played delayed Russian Roulette? Read on..
For More Railroad Worker Asbestos & Mesothelioma Information:
Imagine you are a railroad safety supervisor responsible for the workplace safety of hundreds of workers, men and women that you see on a daily basis. Then imagine that you and your management team learn by 1960 about a toxic substance (think: asbestos insulation) that can be inhaled in invisible quantities, so deadly that it causes terminal cancers like mesothelioma cancer or lung, bladder, or colon cancers.
To make matters worse, what if you learned that the invisible asbestos fibers in the air could not be seen by the naked eye? Even inhaling the smallest most minute quantities, could cause mesothelioma cancer 30 or 40 years down the road, which would be long after the exposure. What steps would you take immediately?
1) Discount the asbestos cancer medical information from medical journal articles? (Taking it upon yourself to assume that the research is rubbish, and figure your reliable railroad workers barely have any asbestos exposure.)
2) Decide that the railroad cancer risk is minimal. If you notify any of your rail workers about the asbestos cancer health dangers they may drum up numerous asbestos claims. (Better to keep them in the dark about the whole thing.)
Or Instead should you…
3) Inspect and monitor all your make and model locomotive engines, railroad yard offices and repair facilities for actual asbestos that may be floating airborne?
4) Issue special bulletins, notices and training videos alerting the railroad workers about asbestos cancers, such as mesothelioma and the steps they can take to screen themselves and take safety precautions.
I hope you would have made a better decision than the actual railroad safety supervisors did. But, before I reveal the outcome, substitute the word “plutonium” for the word “asbestos” and re-read the four questions I posed above. Does that change your answer if you are a safety supervisor for NS, CSX, Conrail or any other railroad?
Reality: In the 1930’s railroad medical doctors attended seminars and learned that asbestos insulation that is airborne was causing permanent, disabling lung diseases like asbestosis.
Medical proof began to mount and medical articles began reporting on mesothelioma cancers in all kinds of workers exposed to asbestos in the next several decades, and by the 1950’s even railroad medical doctors (for NS, CSX, Conrail and the other nation’s railroads) attended annual seminars that discussed lung cancers caused by asbestos in railroad workers.
Finally by the early 1960”s, the railroad doctors and safety supervisors were aware that even tiny amounts of airborne asbestos could cause terminal cancers like mesotheliomas. This is serious stuff, even invisible, fairly small exposures cause mesothelioma cancers decades later. Asbestos in invisible quantities can cause cancers 40 years later—what a time bomb of industrial hygiene danger!
In my recent jury trial involving a railroad worker with both asbestos and plutonium exposure I pondered which of these incredibly toxic cancer causing substances was worse? I never answered that question, except I learned a lot from industrial safety experts: the more dangerous the carcinogen the higher the level of care the railroad employer must take to protect its workers.
In the railroad workplace, the evidence has shown that NS, CSX, Conrail and many other railroads did not inform ANY workers in the 1960’s or 1970’s what they learned about mesotheliomas and cancers in railroad workers. Yet, these railroad doctors—in the 60’s and 70’s were writing letters and memos about mesothelioma cancer diagnosed in railroad workers—even with short, insignificant exposure to the asbestos.
It is not only arguable, but likely, that the railroad’s top supervisors knew the health risks, but concealed the information from the workers for at least a couple of decades. Why? Dollars, of course! Despite the incredible Russian Roulette risks to workers, it was going to cost substantial money to remove asbestos from every diesel engine, yard office, standard item of equipment…etc..
Despite the loss of life it was not COSTING THE RAILROADS any money during 1965 or even 1975 in terms of being sued by workers KILLED by the failure to act. Many workers were already dead without realizing what caused their deaths.
So, when did the nation’s major railroads begin to inform, to inspect, and to act to protect their workers? Not until it began to COST MONEY: in terms of worker lawsuits over mesothelioma cancer, over lung cancer, and other asbestos disease suits.
One of the above mentioned railroads finally formed a high level “task force” in the mid 1980’s to really “deal” with removing asbestos on an across the board basis (yes, we have the documents and minutes of the meetings).
But remember the railroad doctors and safety supervisors were aware that even tiny amounts of airborne asbestos could cause terminal cancers like mesotheliomas back in 1960. That’s when they should have formed their high level railroad management “task force” to get rid of asbestos engines and products, in the 1960’s–not twenty years and countless needless deaths later.
The only reason this railroad even decided to act in the mid 1980’s was because their president came to a bold realization: Asbestos cancer claims are going to cost us millions and it will be perceived as a good industrial safety measure to act and may save us money over many years. (Federal law makes the railroads liable for negligent acts causing worker diseases/cancers for one thing!). Short term pain, long term gain!
The process of eliminating asbestos in the railroad workplace has gone slowly, as there is still asbestos out there and the railroads are still, even after all these years, dragging out efforts to remove it. This is probably the most sordid tale of companies placing profits over safety in the last 100 years.
The temptation to be complacent, and not to spend money, was irresistible to railroad management mainly because the cancer and death of the worker was not instantaneous, it was hidden and it was unknown which of the railroad’s employees would be the unlucky one (supervisor, claim agent, engineer, car men—all faced the Russian roulette spin). That meant avoiding responsibility for the deaths of railroad employees, because there would be no press outrage. Compare the delayed outcome with immediate toxic results, like when a cloud of chlorine gas instantaneously killed workers and residents after a derailment (Graniteville, SC).
The outrage over railroad neglect is now played out in the privacy of chemotherapy oncology clinics, in hospice care of mesothelioma cancer patients and in the pain families suffer through. The families come to know that a railroad employer could have stopped this and even knew how to prevent these cancers, but chose not to.
Now private battles are fought in jury trials every month of the year and will continue until the railroads pay compensation for the lives it ruined (a federal law, the FELA, allows jury trials instead of workers compensation which does not apply to these rail workers cancer cases). What I wonder, as a railroad injury attorney for worker victims, is does the tort jury civil justice system improve workplace safety, better than standard worker compensation? The answer is yes, because the railroad’s liability for the injuries has no absolute cap per claim, so railroad management has even more motivation to make the workplace safety improvements due to the threat of unlimited economic penalties.
But the main point of this article is to bring to light how asbestos cancer fatalities are delayed for years. This made delaying the elimination of asbestos easy for railroads to push to the economic back burner.
Rick Shapiro’s bottom line: The civil justice jury trial system is a necessary check and balance for workplace safety, because economic penalty is a sanitizing feature of our society. Good companies with good workplace safety win; good companies that ignore workplace safety ultimately lose.
About the Editors: The Shapiro, Cooper, Lewis & Appleton personal injury law firm, whose attorneys work out of offices in Virginia (VA) and North Carolina (NC), edits the injury law blogs Virginia Beach Injuryboard, Norfolk Injuryboard, Eastern Shore Virginia Injury Attorneys Blog and Northeast North Carolina Injuryboard as pro bono services.