Silica Safety: Silica and the Tragedy of the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel

Words: Zach Everett

Do you think silica is dangerous? Is it blown out of proportion by OSHA? The Hawk's Nest tragedy was a horrific incident of immorality against workers by overt neglect as it pertains to silica exposure. It began in 1930 and lasted through 1931 in West Virginia. The Union Carbide company needed power in a nearby factory and chose to reroute a river to reach the factory to generate the needed power. A mountain stood in the way, and so they chose to cut through the middle of the mountain. The rock forming the mountain had an unusually high concentration of silica. A contractor was hired to push the job as hard as possible, hiring some 5000 workers to do the great task. The workers were not given any respiratory protection, and the thirty-foot-wide tunnel being bored through the mountain did not have adequate ventilation. The huge borehole was approximately three miles long. Higher-ups who came into the tunnel were able to wear respirators; however, they were not given nor offered to the workers. In a very short time, the workers began to show signs of lung illness caused by chronic cough and difficulty breathing. 

Well over 700 ultimately died from silicosis, though some medical records attributed their deaths to various other respiratory-related diseases. There were so many deaths that the company hired undertakers to bury workers in fields locally, and when families came to inquire about their loved ones, they simply said that they had left and were not aware of their whereabouts. Some of the workers sought legal help for their illnesses; however, many were only paid $1000 each as compensation. Others did not have the backing or support to seek legal assistance; they received nothing. 

This incident has been looked to as perhaps the greatest occupational tragedy in United States history; it stirred indignation when the message finally got out and caused Congress to attempt passing legislation to prevent its recurrence. 

Safety and Health of Hawk's Nest Era Compared to Current Day

Many and vast differences are between safety and health in the early days of 1930 and 1931 compared to the safety and health of our current day. Things were very different in both the safety culture or lack thereof, of companies and enacted laws in the name of safety and health. Companies and supervisors knew of safety practices as a good thing, although they often viewed them as impractical to schedule and produce. The attitude was that the job must get done; it is a dangerous job, and the workers are aware of the risk. If they don't want to get hurt, they can be careful or go get a less dangerous occupation. The short months of notoriety about the project deaths have generated not one federal legislation. However, many states began recognizing silicosis as a job-related disease when working in "dusty areas". 

Today, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is well aware of silica generating projects. Companies doing such work, including mason contractors, must have specific training for each task they must perform. Air quality testing or going by Table 1 would be required, including using engineering controls and administrative controls to keep silica levels below their respective PEL or Permissible Exposure Limit. These are accomplished by wet cutting or boring vacuum systems and as a last resort, Personal Protection Equipment (respiratory protection in the form of respirators). One of the biggest differences is the culture of the workplaces in the United States. We should expect a safe workplace now. Safety meetings are held on jobs weekly in most cases, and Job Safety Analyses are done daily on most larger jobs. Employers that promote and enforce safe practices, especially if they are above and beyond what is required, are covered by workers. They know they are cared for and are treated with respect. 

What Can We Do to Prevent Tragedies Like Hawk's Nest?

There have been several efforts exerted since Hawk's Nest; however, progress has been slow. Congress, around the time, tried to pass laws, and one congressman was said to have declared war on silica. In 1935, the Air Hygiene Foundation was formed in an effort to do research on silica and work to build workplace standards. There was some movement in 1974, and then in 1996, the Labor Secretary began a public awareness campaign, "If It's Silica, It's Not Just Dust", trying to end the disease. Finally, on June 23rd, 2016, OSHA put into effect the long-awaited Respirable Crystalline Silica standard, which is now in full enforcement. Companies that follow the standard will prevent their employees from suffering from silicosis. Research and get answers. There are different ways to protect against silica exposure depending on the task. Do what it takes to protect yourself and your workers. And we may never experience a nightmare like the Hawk's Nest tragedy.

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