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Workplace Diesel Smoke Closer to Recognition as a Hazard

A worker's compensation judge recently ruled that a bus mechanic's exposure to exhaust from buses contributed to his death from lung cancer. This reflects growing attention to diesel smoke exposure on the job among public health and workplace safety advocates.

Growing attention to the problem has not always resulted in victories for injured workers and their families. In 2012, a Court of Appeals ruled against New York transit workers in a case brought against General Motors and other bus manufacturers. The plaintiffs argued that the manufacturers were liable for illnesses and fatalities because they failed to warn about the dangers of inhaling diesel fumes. Moreover, according to the lawsuit, the bus companies designed engines to circumvent emissions standards once the buses were in service.

However, the court was not convinced and is ruling discouraged similar lawsuits. Essentially, the ruling said that bus manufacturers were not liable because their engines met EPA emissions standards, even if operating companies could adjust engines to get around emissions requirements.

The more recent worker's comp ruling may encourage new civil claims related to exposure to diesel exhaust. Around 12 million workers in the United States inhale diesel exhaust daily while working in mines, seaports, construction sites, farms and engine repair businesses.

A 2013 alert from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) said that even short-term exposure to diesel fumes could lead to dizziness and respiratory irritation. It also advised that long-term exposure raised the risk of lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Despite a growing body of information about diesel exhaust, including classification by the World Health Organization (WHO), mining is the only industry that has federal standards limiting the level of diesel particulates that can be inhaled by workers. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) does not list diesel smoke as a known carcinogen - diesel fumes are classified as likely carcinogens by the EPA.

The Metropolitan Transit Administration (MTA) did not contest the decision by the New York worker's compensation judge, according to an article about the matter in the Washington Post.