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Asbestos--who would assume that risk?

Workers in many industrial occupations are often aware that they job carries a risk. At one time, in the U.S., if a worker recognized that there was a significant hazard in their job, and they informed their employer of the risk, and the employer did nothing, they had a choice.

They could continue working, and if they were injured, they could not recover from their employer for negligence, because they had "assumed the risk." If they did not want to assume this risk, they had little choice but to quit.

Eventually, this judge-made policy was seen as inherently unfair, and personal injury law, workers' compensation and the modern workplace safety regulatory apparatus evolved to replace it, allowing workers injured by employer negligence to recover for their injures and damages.

Workers in the railroad industry knew they had a dangerous line of work, and much of workers' compensation law developed from the deadly accidents occasioned by the moving of thousands of tons of rail cars around the nation.

But few railroad workers would have seen a risk arising from asbestos. After all, it served as insulation on steam pipes and electrical cabling, and as gaskets and brake shoes. It was a mineral, all it did was turn to dust and who would have seen dust as a worry?

Well, maybe coal miners. Recently in Illinois, two rail workers received a jury award of $1.7 million for the injuries they suffered while working for the Illinois Central Railroad. They both worked in the railroad yard. One of the men died in 2007 from asbestosis and lung cancer.

Asbestos was used long after there were reasonable suspicions that it was deadly. And no one would assume the risk of working with it had they known the true risk it posed. 

Source:, "$1.7 million awarded in 2 railroad asbestos cases," Edith Brady-Lunny, January 28, 2014

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