Subways have made a significant impact on US transportation and commerce for more than 100 years. They provide millions of people who need an affordable way to move around a big city. Subway workers have played a significant role in this development. Their jobs include operating, building, inspecting, repairing and maintaining subway systems all over the country.
Working in crews on subway systems, subway workers inspect rails, railroad ties, and roadbeds for any signs of wear. Other crew members rebuild rail systems, replace rail ties, cut rails to certain lengths and lay new rail sections. Extra crews are often needed to repair and maintain large sections of the subway track at regular intervals of heavy use in major cities.
But working in the subway industry comes with risks, just as working in the railroad business. Exposure to asbestos is common in this industry, which was used heavily in the building of subway and train parts from the 1930s until the 1970s. While OSHA has limited the use of asbestos in construction materials for decades, some subways and railways continued to use it. In some cases, the companies were aware of the risks and did not tell anyone. Exposure to asbestos is still a risk to subway workers if their companies were using subway parts that were made before the 1980s.
Subway Workers Fast Facts (BLS.gov)
- National Employment: 91,100
- Similar Occupations:
- Previously Exposed: Yes
- Still Being Exposed: Yes
- Asbestos-Related Disease Risk: High
- States with Highest Employment: New York, Illinois, Los Angeles, Washington DC
Subway Workers Asbestos Exposure
Because asbestos has been used so widely on trains and subways, even subway workers who did not handle the repair of parts could have been exposed. Any employees around subway rail shops, roundhouses, or repair shops could have breathed in asbestos fibers because it was common for workers in these facilities to sand, cut and smooth materials that contained asbestos.
These actions would release asbestos fibers into the air and onto their clothes were they could be breathed in. Once the fibers are inhaled, some are expelled, but others can lodge in the lungs and lead to mesothelioma after many years.
Scientific Studies on Subway Workers Asbestos Exposure
Dr. Wilhelm C. Heuper once did research that showed that lung cancer and mesothelioma cases were more common among railway and subway workers than those who did not work in the trades.
Also, a study was done by the Department of Medicine of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Massachusetts titled, “Past exposure to asbestos among active railroad workers,’ indicated that workers who worked on steam-powered locomotives before the 1950s were at a high risk of asbestos exposure. Other studies done by the same department showed that older subway employees with jobs related to repairing steam locomotives had the greatest chance of exposure.
Subway Workers Asbestos and Mesothelioma Lawsuits
There have been many mesothelioma lawsuits brought by former railroad and subway workers who suffered from asbestos exposure for years. For example, the high levels of asbestos found in New York City’s Grand Central Station has been the source of many lawsuits against Metro-North. One lawsuit was filed by Michael Buckley in 1997 who was a pipefitter in the Grand Central Station Tunnels. He and his fellow workers who worked on pipe insulation were not protected from asbestos until 1987 when strict safety procedures were initiated.
The lawsuit found that Metro-North had seriously neglected the health and safety of subway workers. At the time of the hearing, Buckley did not yet have mesothelioma or any asbestos-related condition. He was however awarded compensation to cover monitoring his medical condition for years in the future.