What Hazardous Chemical Solvents Are Railroad Workers Commonly Exposed To?

Railroads are hazardous working environments. Every day, employees are in danger of being seriously injured by derailments, being struck by trains, using poorly maintained equipment, and slip-and-falls. Those who are employed by major railway companies like Union Pacific, CSX, or Norfolk Southern are also routinely exposed to toxic chemicals and substances that can cause permanent damage to their health and pave the way for chemical solvent exposure claims. Not too long ago, railway workers were regularly exposed to asbestos. Although this hazardous and potentially deadly mineral was removed from railroads once it was directly linked to mesothelioma, workers are still exposed to many other hazardous chemicals, such as degreasers, coal dust, creosote, and diesel fumes. Trains transporting toxic chemicals like chlorine can also endanger workers if the train derails. The Norfolk railroad injury attorneys at Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp have been helping railway workers file chemical solvent exposure claims under the Federal Employers Liability Act since 1985. If your health was damaged or you lost a loved one due to chemical exposure as a railroad employee, call us today to schedule a free case evaluation.   

Chemical Dangers on the Railroad

Railway workers are exposed to multiple chemicals that can jeopardize not only their health but their livelihoods as well. Some of the hazardous chemicals workers are at risk of being exposed to include:


Railway employees are occasionally exposed to benzene, a cancer-causing chemical found in degreasing solvents as well as the diesel fumes emitted by trains. Due to the high risk of cancer associated with its use, benzene is heavily regulated. Unfortunately, numerous products that contain benzene are still used by railroads, leaving workers exposed to the risks. Benzene has been linked to many forms of cancer, including stomach cancer, kidney cancer, leukemia, mesothelioma, and more.

Solvents and Hydrocarbons

Railroad employees can also become ill due to their exposure to solvent mixtures and hydrocarbons. These hazardous products can cause workers to develop peripheral neuritis, a disorder that involves the inflammation of their legs and arms. The fumes secreted by these chemicals are extremely toxic and can cause severe conditions like brain damage.

Exposure to solvents and hydrocarbons is one of the leading causes of toxic encephalopathy. Small quantities can travel through a worker’s bloodstream and into their brain resulting in permanent brain damage. Symptoms of toxic encephalopathy include trouble focusing, memory loss, and fatigue which are often mistaken for signs of aging.

Diesel Fumes

A study conducted in 2004 and published by the National Library of Medicine shows that long-term exposure to the diesel fumes found in railroad exhaust greatly increases the risk of lung cancer. An employee subjected to years of on-the-job exposure is at a 300% risk of developing lung cancer when compared to a non-railroad employee. Unfortunately, many workers do not begin to display symptoms until years after their exposure took place.

Coal Dust

Another major health concern for both rail workers and communities located near coal trains is coal dust, which has also been linked to lung cancer. Both workers and unfortunately-located residents have shown drastically increased rates of hospitalization due to chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and high blood pressure. 


The railway industry is one of the biggest users of lead causing workers who have been exposed to the toxic metal to contract a wide range of illnesses. Lead poisoning damages the nervous system and produces symptoms such as tremors, hallucinations, and insomnia. 


For decades, asbestos was ubiquitous on railroads. Insulation made from asbestos was favored due to its heat-resistant properties and low cost. When diesel locomotives replaced steam locomotives in the 1950s, rail companies continued to use asbestos. In fact, its use persisted until the 1970s when a link between mesothelioma and asbestos was made. While it has since fallen into disuse, it continues to be found in some railroads.  

Talk to a Norfolk Railroad Injury Attorney

Railroad work is a stressful, back-breaking job. Many workers disregard the initial symptoms of an illness or injury because they do not associate them with chemical exposure. At Shapiro, Washburn & Sharp, we have been helping injured rail workers and their families pursue fair compensation under FELA for more than 40 years, like this railroad conductor who developed COPD after decades of exposure to diesel fumes. 

If you suspect that you have been exposed to hazardous substances or toxic chemicals in the course and scope of your employment with a rail company, contact our Norfolk railroad injury attorneys right away by calling (833) 997-1774 or contacting us online. Our offices are located in Norfolk, Hampton, Virginia Beach, Portsmouth, and Chesapeake. 


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