Despite being widely known for a number of years, the dangerous health effects of diesel exhaust are only just beginning to be acted upon by various industries. In May, the Bush administration decided to leave in place regulations proposed by President Clinton that strengthened diesel exhaust regulations in the mining industry.
On July 5, in support of the regulations, the Labor Department announced a new sampling program that will determine the current levels of diesel particles in that industry.
Of course, the health threat posed by diesel exhaust is not limited to mine workers. A recent claim we brought on behalf of a trainman against his railroader employer illustrates this fact. After years on the job working in a confined railroad control tower, the trainman developed severe and completely disabling lung and breathing problems.
Under the FELA - Federal Employers’ Liability Act, however, the railroad is required to compensate only for damages caused by its own negligence. The trainman correctly believed that the railroad had negligently exposed him continuously for years to locomotive diesel fumes, toxic chemicals, dust and stagnant second-hand smoke in the unventilated control tower where he worked.
In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Organization (OSHA) agrees with what the trainman full well knew: railroad workers who are exposed to diesel exhaust (as well as bridge and tunnel workers, loading dock workers, truck drivers, garage workers, farm workers, and longshoring employees) face adverse health effects ranging from headaches to nausea to cancer and to respiratory disease.
Studies have shown that exposed workers have an elevated risk of lung cancer, some evidence of risk of bladder cancer, and workers also may experience dizziness, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, decrement of visual acuity, and decrement in forced expiratory volume, according to OSHA. Diesel exhaust has been implicated as a cause of reactive airway disease, and tests have shown it to be toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic.
According to the EPA, numerous studies have linked diesel exhaust to cancer, the exacerbation of asthma and other respiratory diseases. Dozens more studies link airborne fine particle concentrations – such as those in diesel exhaust – to increased hospital admissions for respiratory diseases, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumonia, heart disease and death. [Read the EPA Report]
WHY IS DIESEL SUCH A THREAT?
The weight of scientific authority rests with the causal finding that the tiny particles present in diesel exhaust penetrate deeply into the recesses of a person's lungs (most diesel particles are less than 1 micron in size; 1,000 microns = 1 mm).
\Simply put, once lodged deep in the lungs, diesel particles tend to remain there rather than being cleared from the body, which causes them to be particularly hazardous. In contrast, larger particles are captured by the fine hairs and mucus in the nose and throat and are more quickly and easily cleared from the body by sneezing, coughing, or swallowing.
These super-small diesel exhaust particles are particularly dangerous because they are coated with a mixture of chemicals such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitroaromatics, benzene, dioxins, and other toxicants.
Diesel engines spew out 100 times more particles than gasoline engines for the same load and engine conditions. Because they are embedded so deeply in the lungs, the diesel particles in effect lengthen a railroader’s exposure to the toxicants in diesel exhaust. For these reasons, a February 1998 U.S. EPA draft report indicated that even low level exposure to diesel exhaust is likely to pose a risk of lung cancer and respiratory impairment.
OSHA estimates over one million workers in America face these risks on a daily basis. [Read the Report]
MEANWHILE, BACK AT THE CONTROL TOWER
On Hoey & Farina's advice, the trainman challenged the railroad for carelessly maintaining the control tower, and negligently failing to provide a safe working environment.
After much legal maneuvering by the railroad, and after an extensive development of the trainman’s medical file, we were able to positively show that he develop a serious and debilitating disease that caused great pain and suffering, and caused him to lose a significant portion of his working life as a result of the railroad’s failure to provide safe working conditions.
The trainman recovered financially for his injuries, but will never recover physically. The real tragedy is that his debilitating disease might have been avoided if the steps now being taken in the mining industry had been taken by the railroads when awareness of the problem first arose decades ago.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO PROTECT YOURSELF
Understanding the detrimental health effects from diesel exhaust ought to be a priority for anyone working on the railroad. Experts recommend that if your job causes you to have an increased exposure to diesel exhaust, you should consider implementing basic hygienic precautions, including:
- Wear personal protective gear.
- Remove and wash your work clothes as soon as you arrive home to prevent contaminating your home with exhaust particles.
- Don't eat while in areas of exhaust exposure.
- If you are a smoker, quit smoking.
- Discuss your concerns with the health and safety officer at your site of employment.
Understanding of the precise link between diesel exhaust and pulmonary and other diseases in railroaders is growing stronger by the day. In turn, this will lead to a work environment for railroaders that better safeguards their health, their livelihood, and the well-being of their families.