Whole Body Vibration Injuries

What Is Whole Body Vibration?

Whole body vibration (WBV) is a term used to describe human exposure to the effects of mechanical forces such as shocks, jolts, lateral sway and vertical bouncing that are transmitted to the body through the feet when in a standing position and the buttocks when in a seated position. Locomotive engineers and trainmen, who perform the vast majority of their work while sitting, are constantly exposed to WBV, including sudden shocks and jolts in normal train operations, hour after hour, day after day and year after year.

What Injuries Are Caused By WBV?

Sometimes described as "cumulative trauma," "repetitive stress," "chronic wear," "wear out," or even "sudden shock syndrome" injuries – these are all terms used to describe injuries that the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recognize as musculoskeletal disorders ("MSD"). MSDs can involve any body part, but the spine is particularly vulnerable to injury from long-term exposure to excessive WBV, which is a type of cumulative trauma.

ITEM: Texas jury awards $1.9 million to BNSF engineer for whole body vibration injuries

Cumulative trauma – where a part of the body is injured by repeatedly overusing or causing trauma to that body part – is a well-recognized health and safety hazard throughout the railroad industry. Occupational hearing loss, for example, is caused by long-term exposure to excessive noise and is a potential danger for employees in all railroad crafts. Other forms of cumulative trauma such as carpal tunnel syndrome, rotator cuff syndrome, tendinitis or Raynaud's phenomenon (also known as "vibration white finger") generally occur among a narrower range of employees who perform repetitive manual tasks or who constantly work with power tools.

Locomotive engineers and trainmen are at risk for a particular type of cumulative trauma injury caused by long-term exposure to excessive WBV in locomotive cabs. Such long-term exposure may cause serious MSDs, including premature degenerative spinal conditions such as herniated disks, degenerative disk disease, degenerative joint disease, arthritis and severe chronic back and/or neck pain. Often, these types of MSDs result in premature disability and shortened careers.

ITEM: Colorado jury awards Union Pacific engineer $815,000 for "whole body vibration" spinal injuries

After a comprehensive review of medical, scientific and epidemiological literature, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (NIOSH) concluded in 1997 that:

There is strong evidence of an association between exposure to whole body vibration and low-back disorder.... Both experimental and epidemiological evidence suggest that WBV may act in combination with other work-related factors, such as prolonged sitting, lifting and awkward postures, to cause increased risk of back disorder.

What Causes WBV And How Can It Be Minimized?

According to a 1996 FRA report, "Locomotive Crash Worthiness and Cab Working Conditions," there are three major sources of vibration in locomotive cabs:

  • Reciprocating equipment (engines, compressors, alternators, superchargers, etc.)
  • Locomotive suspension systems
  • Irregularities in the track and roadbed

Poor maintenance of reciprocating equipment, suspension systems and track and roadbed produce excessive vibrations, shocks, jolts and other sudden movements that are primarily transmitted to the locomotive body and transferred to locomotive engineers and trainmen through the cab floor and seat. Poor track conditions, for example, can cause excessive lateral sway and vertical movement, much of which is unexpected and some of which can be quite severe, particularly when trains are traveling at higher speeds. While certain locomotive types are well-known to be rough riding, all locomotives will provide rough rides if suspension systems are not regularly inspected and properly maintained – leading to excessive WBV, excessive lateral and vertical movement, and excessive shocks and jolts. Significantly, this FRA report also noted, "The seat, especially if mounted to the frame, is the primary means through which vibrations are transferred to cab occupants, although vibrating controls can affect hands and arms locally."

Properly selected and maintained locomotive cab seats have an important dampening effect on WBV; improper seat selection and/or lack of seat maintenance can increase the adverse health effects of WBV. The trucking industry and the mass transit sector of the transportation industry, for example, adopted air ride seats decades ago not only to provide greater operator comfort, but also to protect the operators' spines. Why has the American freight railroad industry failed to provide air ride seats in locomotive cabs?

What Did Railroads Know About WBV And When Did They Know It?

Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that U.S. railroads have long known of the serious risk of permanent spine damage due to long-term exposure to excessive WBV. In addition to the 1996 FRA report discussed above:

  • A 1972 FRA report titled "Human Factors Survey of Locomotive Cabs" found that " This same 1972 FRA study also recommended additional research on vibration exposure and improvements to locomotive engineer seating.
  • A 1980 study commissioned by the Association of American Railroads found that "seats in American railroads needed to be replaced to provide better protection against vibration-caused injuries among employees working on locomotives." This AAR study also "encouraged member railroads, including CSXT, to conduct their own vibration studies and consider replacement of their locomotive seats with newer ergonomically friendly seats, because of the high rate of back complaints."
  • A 1998 FRA report, "Human Factors Guidelines for Locomotive Cabs," found that " the lack of appropriate seating in the cab environment is one of [the] most thoroughly documented problems. Engineers complain of lower back, neck and shoulder pains related to sitting posture. The lack of adequate seating results from a mismatch between the anthropometric requirements of train engineers for the seats and control stand and the actual dimensions of this equipment."

How Can You Find Out If You Have A Spinal Injury Caused By Cumulative Trauma?

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, read by a qualified medical doctor with knowledge about the effects of long-term exposure to WBV, are generally necessary to diagnose cumulative trauma degenerative disk disease to the spine. If you have chronic back or neck pain, talk to your family doctor and seek a referral to a qualified orthopedic or neurological medical specialist.

What Are Your Legal Rights If You Have Injuries Caused By Your Railroad Work?

The Federal Employers' Liability Act (FELA) permits railroad employees to recover damages for on-the-job injuries and occupational illnesses, including those caused by cumulative trauma such as MSDs to the spine due to long-term exposure to WBV. Under the FELA, you have three years to file your case from the date on which you knew or should have known that you have a job-related injury. It is therefore imperative that you consult with an experienced FELA attorney as soon as possible if you even suspect that you may have a railroad-related injury.

If you believe you have a railroad-related injury and have questions about your legal rights, you can call Bremseth Law Firm at 952-475-2800. Feel free to call with any questions about your legal rights. The Bremseth Law Firm is nationally recognized as a leading firm in the area of cumulative trauma injuries.