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A brief history of asbestos on the UK railway

In considering the carcinogenic effects of asbestos, in hindsight it is horrifying to picture its use in the building of trains travelling across the UK’s vast railway network.


04 June 2015

Asbestos use in railway construction

Tragically, for many the effects of exposure to asbestos are not a matter of hindsight but potentially a condition that has yet to be diagnosed by a doctor.

Asbestos was widely used in the construction and maintenance of trains. With the natural strength and high melting point of its fibres, asbestos was commonly used for insulation, lining train carriage walls and boilers and heating systems. Not only this, but asbestos was also used in the engine rooms of trains, lining brake pads and packing piston cylinders.

Risks faced by railway workers

Working in the railway industry can come with inherent risk, but many suffer the hazards of asbestos without realising. Asbestos was used in the manufacturing of train and locomotive components from the 1930s. Parts built prior to the 1980s have since been removed from areas that are accessible to people, but older steam engines and carriages on display in museums may still contain asbestos.

In the 1950s railway staff and passengers weren't aware of the effects of exposure to asbestos at work. Many jobs within carriage work sites where trains were built involved direct contact with asbestos dust. Often labourers would carry out the cutting, sanding or smoothing of asbestos-contaminated material. The disturbance of asbestos can result in the inhalation of its fibres, which can lead to asbestos-related lung diseases including Mesothelioma.

Asbestos fibres are easily transported in clothing and hair, and so the workers carrying out these tasks will potentially have carried the dust and its effects beyond the work site and into their homes.

Evolution of safety measures

Many workers would have suffered bystander exposure as a result of working near others who used asbestos products. Now, specialist professionals are employed to survey and handle asbestos, with extensive safety precautions taken in protecting people from asbestos during its removal, including protective equipment for those handling asbestos-contaminated materials.

Decades ago, unaware workers received no such protection and carried out their duties without knowledge of the effects of their exposure to asbestos. Pleural Thickening develops from 10 - 20 years after exposure to asbestos fibres. For many industrial workers, the contamination will have taken place years ago. Exposure to asbestos can also result in other asbestos-related diseases, including Mesothelioma and Asbestosis.

Use of asbestos beyond railways

The use of asbestos extends far beyond the reach of railway trains alone; its use in commercial buildings in the UK continued until 1999. It was utilised in fixing water pipes and corrugated roofing, with asbestos cement mixed in constructing the bricks and floors of offices and houses.

Contact us

Slater and Gordon has acted on behalf of many a client who worked in the railway industry and developed an asbestos related condition. We have a specialist team of asbestos compensation solicitors that deal with asbestos claims on a No Win No Fee basis. For a free consultation call freephone 0330 041 5869 or contact us online and we’ll be happy to help you.

All information was correct at the time of publication.

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