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Asbestos and the Railway Industry

The fire-retardant properties of asbestos made it ideal for use in the railway industry. Its main purpose was for lagging pipe work and boilers, but the substance was also found in brake pads and insulating materials. In fact, dangerous asbestos sprays were commonly used throughout trains to insulate carriages and engines.

This prolific use during the 1950s and 1960s in particular, has led to the deaths of many railway workers from mesothelioma and other asbestos-related cancers. One such worker was Frank Bostock, who died in 2015.

Mr Bostock had worked in the locomotive industry since leaving school as a 14 year old, and after a long career on the railways, sadly succumbed to malignant mesothelioma at the age of 84.

Sacks of asbestos transported by rail

Hessian sacks full of asbestos were transported on the railways, and it was the porter’s job to load and unload them. If the sacks split, asbestos dust and fibres would spill out and cover the porter’s uniform, making it impossible for them to avoid breathing it in.

Other times, sacks of asbestos were used within the confines of the engine sheds, with particles being disbursed around the room. Mr Bostock described the scene where he worked, in a statement written after being diagnosed with cancer:

“In my younger days, people would lark about throwing asbestos dust at each other and we would be covered in it.  The whole of the shed atmosphere was very dingy and dusty. Through the day, my throat would become irritated and I would cough.”

Carriage building and maintenance

The repair and maintenance of carriages and engines involved a continuous cycle of asbestos use. It was impossible to escape the dust and fibres, which found their way into workers’ hair and clothes on a regular basis.

At the time, knowledge of the dangers of asbestos was, at best, sketchy. The manufacture of asbestos products was a lucrative industry for several decades, and those who knew about the repercussions of coming into contact with the substance may have been reluctant to express their worries.

Secondary exposure suffered by children

Workers on the railways were in very real danger of contracting an asbestos-related disease in later life, but their families also suffered exposure in some instances. Asbestos dust and fibres remained on uniforms and overalls, and on returning home, members of the family were also forced to breathe in the particles.

This secondary exposure has resulted in fatalities from asbestos-related disease in later life. Some victims living near asbestos factories breathed in the dust and fibres as children, and this environmental exposure has been cited as a cause of death in many cases.

People living close to asbestos factories were clearly most at risk from environmental exposure. It has been reported that children would play with asbestos when it fell into areas surrounding the factories, and with few safety measures in place to contain potential contamination, the entire neighbourhood was put at risk.