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Asbestos and the Loco Works and Railways

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25 Sep 2017

Asbestos was used prolifically throughout the 20th century in the railways industry. It was used on the construction of railway carriages and locomotive engines throughout the UK. As a result many people who have worked in locomotive works have gone on to develop asbestos related conditions, mesothelioma, pleural thickening and asbestosis.

British Rail was nationalised in 1948 and inherited a number of loco works including, Crewe, Derby Horwich, Doncaster, Darlington, Gorton, Stafford, Eastleigh, Brighton and Ashford where new locomotives were built, Kilmarnock, St. Rollox, Bow, Barrow, Inverness, Cowlairs, Inverurie, Gateshead, Wolverhampton, Caerphilly, Newton Abbott, Oswestry, Barry and Neasden where heavy repairs and rebuilding work was carried out.

Steam locomotives contained significant amounts of asbestos. The boilers, the main part of the steam engine was constructed and asbestos was then used to insulate it, often in the form of asbestos mattresses and sprayed asbestos insulation.

Asbestos insulations on the engines was used around the heating pipes in the form of lagging.

Asbestos was also used on the trains carriages as insulation material as well. The carriage was put together in the assembly shop as a frame which was then insulated with asbestos. The asbestos was usually sprayed Limpet asbestos which was sprayed between the inner and outer layers of the carriage to provide fire and sound proofing.

The air in the loco works was often full of asbestos dust with no ventilation or dust extractors to take it away.

Asbestos exposure did not only occur during construction though. Frequently engines would come back into the loco works, workshop for repairs and maintenance work to be done. Asbestos insulation would be removed from pipes and mattresses may also be removed inside the works with limited or no ventilation present. Mattresses were damaged through installation and wear and tear and significant amounts of dust were given off as work was carried out.

According to the Department of Environment report, “maintenance and repair work occupied a considerable portion of the life of a steam locomotive and typically only one third of its life was actually spent working.”

Significant amounts of waste including asbestos waste was generated from work done both in the construction and maintenance and repairs of both engines and train carriages. Whilst some was taken away, on-site disposal of waste including asbestos waste occurred at some loco works. This waste was in essence disposed of with other waste on tips or other areas on site.

At the time, many employees and apprentices working in the industry were unaware of the dangers asbestos posed. Young apprentices in particular could make snowballs out of the asbestos which they would throw at each other.

In the works, there were often pits like those seen in car garages put on a much bigger scale which allowed workers to get underneath the carriages to carry out repairs and installation work. It was not an area that was tidied and waste including asbestos waste was allowed to remain in the pit to be disturbed by employees at they went about their work.

Left over materials and spare parts were kept at the Loco works often in storage areas meaning even after asbestos was no longer used by the Works, people could still potentially be exposed to it by going in to storage areas where it remained and areas which had not been properly cleaned since its removal.

Asbestos was also used in Stations as well just as in many other buildings which were constructed in the 20th Century. It was used as partitions, soffits and gutters, asbestos cement roofing sheets and as insulations around pipes and boilers. Asbestos dust was disturbed both during construction and potentially during any modification, repairs or refurbishment works.

Today asbestos in no longer used on locomotive engines or carriages. However, many people are involved with the restoration and preservation of old engines and carriages through Heritage Trusts and other organisations. Whilst these groups are clearly very enthusiastic and committed to preserving these vintage trains for generations to come, it is very important that when any work is done to either engines or carriages that all the necessary precautions and investigations are carried out beforehand to ensure people are not exposed to asbestos

We have represented a number of clients who have been exposed to asbestos as a result of their work both in the construction of engines and carriages.

Contact our Asbestos Solicitors