Railroad workers are often exposed to crystalline silica dust in the course of their employment. The ballast, which are the rocks under the railroad ties and rails, are most often granite. Granite has one of the highest concentrations of silica compared to other similar materials. Granite is up to 45 percent silica.
When workers manipulate the rocks, it creates dust. Within this dust are tiny particles of silica, which cause respiratory irritation. Prolonged or routine exposure to silica dust can lead to railroad worker silicosis.
What is Railroad Worker Silicosis?
Silicosis is an incurable lung disease that develops in individuals who work around silica dust. When silica dust particles enter the lungs, they attach to soft tissue and cause inflammation. Over time, scarring occurs and the patient begins to experience symptoms. Sometimes, symptoms occur in the weeks or months following exposure. In other cases, it may take years or even decades for symptoms to become apparent.
Railroad worker silicosis is a tragic and preventable disease. It progresses over time causing symptoms, including:
- Shortness of Breath
- Chronic Cough
- Chest Pain
- Loss of Appetite/Weight Loss
- Kidney Problems
In addition to the symptoms, silicosis can also make the patient more vulnerable to lung diseases like tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer. Silicosis also makes patients vulnerable to some autoimmune disorders like lupus.
Who is At Risk for Railroad Worker Silicosis?
Any railroad worker whose job exposes them to dust is certainly at risk for silicosis. Railroad occupations like ballast operations, painting, rock drilling, and sandblasting can all produce dust, which may contain silica dust particles.
Railroad workers who are most at risk are maintenance of way workers. These workers use machinery like ballast regulators, brooms, adzers, undercutters, and tie tampers to maintain rails. Maintenance of way workers are constantly exposed to dust from the ballast as they hammer, crush, manipulate, drill, or level the rocks during maintenance.
Is Silicosis Preventable?
What makes railroad worker silicosis so tragic is the fact that the disease is completely preventable. Workers who are provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) and a safe and compliant work environment should not develop silicosis. Sadly, more than one million workers in the U.S. face exposure to silica dust each year.
In 1996, crystalline silica dust (respirable particles) was identified as a human carcinogen. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have all weighed in on the danger of high silica exposure. These organizations have set guidelines and exposure limits in an effort to reduce the number of silicosis cases.
Despite guidelines, the CDC estimates that 250 U.S. workers die with silicosis each year. These workers have been exposed to silica dust while working in mining, construction, sandblasting, foundry work, and the maritime industry.