September 2, 2021

NIOSH Evaluates Health Hazards at Train Maintenance Facility

A new report (PDF) published by NIOSH describes a health hazard evaluation that the agency conducted at a train maintenance facility in June and July 2019 at the request of a union that operated at the site. Employees at this facility had expressed concerns about overexposure to heavy metals and the possibility of contracting cancers from work-related exposures. While NIOSH’s evaluation did not find evidence for either heavy metal overexposures or cancers caused by work-related exposures, agency staff did identify additional hazards present in the workplace and recommended actions to improve the overall health, safety, quality of life, and morale of employees at the facility. These recommendations spanned three areas: to improve hazard communication and training, to improve hygiene and cleaning practices, and to address potential health and safety issues unrelated to either metal exposure or cancer risks.

NIOSH investigators visited the facility twice in the summer of 2019. Each visit began and ended with meetings that included both management and union representatives, as all employees at the facility belonged to one of the multiple unions on site. During the visits, NIOSH investigators observed work processes, practices, and conditions; spoke informally to employees about their health and safety concerns; measured employee exposures to metals; and administered medical surveys. As the employees worked in a variety of workshops within the facility, each of which focused on different maintenance and repair tasks, NIOSH tested blood lead levels among employees in the electronics shop only. These levels were in the normal range, and air sampling conducted throughout the facility found no metal exposures above relevant occupational exposure limits. Previous sampling data also showed no history of overexposures.

While four employees reported having cancer, each had been diagnosed with a different type, and NIOSH did not find that these results were consistent with cancers potentially caused by a work-related exposure. According to the report’s authors, a large-scale epidemiological study would be required to determine whether the incidence of cancer among workers was excessively high at this facility, and NIOSH referred management and union representatives to state health departments. The agency also urged management to communicate steps being taken to investigate or address worker concerns about cancer.

According to NIOSH, the employees’ health concerns indicated a need for improvement in hazard communication and training at this facility. For example, employees were concerned with potential exposures to cadmium and chemicals contained in the varnish applied to electronic motor coils. In fact, the workers no longer had direct contact with cadmium and the process for applying varnish had been outsourced, but these control measures had not been clearly communicated to employees. NIOSH investigators also observed employees inconsistently using personal protective equipment (PPE). The report recommends that the employer provide periodic training and communicate clearly to employees about potential work hazards, ways to protect themselves, and the correct use of PPE.

NIOSH also recommended for the facility to prevent potential exposures by improving cleaning practices and to address additional hazards identified during the evaluation that could cause employee illness or injury. Additional hazards involved the process for spraying paint at the facility, potential noise overexposure, the use of latex gloves, and a suspected leak in the sand-blasting cabinet.

For more information, read the PDF of NIOSH’s full report.