Silica Dust Just One Account in History (Part 1)

By July 7, 2016 January 29th, 2020 OSHA HazCom, Safety

The Hawk’s Nest Incident

In Muriel Rukeyser’s book, The Book of the Dead, which is considered poetry, it tells of the historical Hawk’s Nest Incident. It is the grand truth told of one of the worst industrial disasters in US history. It happened in Gauley Bridge, West Virginia. This story is particularly near to my heart, because my grandparents and our extended family are from the area. When I was a young girl we used to frequent the area often to camp and visit our family. I remember hearing stories of some of my ancestors working in the tunnels and mines of West Virginia but it was only years later, as an adult, that I realized what that actually meant.

The Hawk’s Nest Incident revolves around the contraction of silicosis while constructing a power plant. Silicosis is a lung disease caused by breathing in tiny bits of silica, a mineral that is part of sand, rock, and mineral ores such as quartz. It mostly affects workers exposed to silica dust in occupations such as mining, glass manufacturing, and foundry work. Exposure to silica particles causes scarring in the lungs, which can inhibit your ability to breathe. The most common warning sign shown by sick people is shortness of breath. Silicosis is contracted through inhaling rock dust that contains silica dust. Blasting away at the rock in order to build a tunnel at Hawk’s Nest produced this such dust.

A proposal to build a hydroelectric plant on the New River was brought up in 1927 in which this project was to help boost West Virginia’s economy. The project created a multitude of jobs in which many workers came from the Southeast. A company out of Charlottesville, VA was contracted to begin construction. Construction began on this job which included the construction of numerous structures, power stations, dams, and tunnels. A process used in which the rock was broken and removed from the tunnel was called mucking. When workers removed the broken up rock it assisted in the dispersal of dust that was highly likely to be contaminated with silica dust and because the workmen schedule was rigorous, a six day work week with ten-hour shifts, exposure to the dust was at a high level. This dust has been considered to be the root cause in several hundred infected men who work on this site.

Working in Hawk’s Nest

Working in the tunnel was by far the worst of the jobs, where in the tunnel work shifts consisted of two three-hour shifts where they used a process where they would drill holes in the rock, dynamite was inserted to blast out the remainder of the rock and after the explosion the debris would have to be removed. This removal involved a high level of exposure to silica dust. The use of gasoline powered equipment also polluted contaminated air in addition to the dusty conditions. Certainly, not ideal conditions for working.

Hawk's Nest Tunnel - Silica Dust

It was noted that there were never steps taken to evaluate the risk of exposure to silica dust for the workers on this site. There are also many accounts on how workers from the site would come out of the tunnels coated in dust from head to toe. Members of the community reported that when these workers would walk home from the mines they would leave a trail of dusty footprints from the thick layer of dust they were covered by.

The number of how many workers actually died as a result of Silicosis in Gauley Bridge, Hawk’s Nest project has never been confirmed. It has been estimated and agreed upon to be around 700 deaths. The fatalities remain for the most part anonymous in part from lack of record keeping or lack of knowledge at the time. Reports differ on how many died and the causes of these deaths were persistently debated.

Records were accessible through only a certain date, leaving several incomplete files. These records did not take in to account the number of migrant workers who left the area after the project completed and possibly died from Silicosis. Investigators attempted to find more information about deaths during this time through an assessment of county records, but found them lacking. Records of medical services received by the workers have never been fully recovered. Without them it is difficult to figure out whether or not patients truly suffered from Silicosis. At the time it was difficult for physicians to diagnose due to unfamiliarity with Silicosis and the fact that it resembled tuberculosis so closely.

Lawsuits and Regulations

Hawk's Cave employees Gauley Bridge, West Virginia

Eventually, lawsuits began to be filed for the affected workers. Residents testified for the workers, stating that the workers were coated with dust when they left the work site. The general manager of the project, who was employed by the construction company that headed the work, claimed that there wasn’t any negligence by the administration and there were no known documented cases of Silicosis from any of his workers. He also declared his employees never complained about the working conditions while working in the tunnels. The courts eventually ruled in favor of rewarding the complainants. In 1935, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed a state worker’s compensation law which would compensate workers who were infected with Silicosis. This was a giant step forward by paying workers for illness contracted from the job, however there were many loopholes such as, clearing the employer of responsibility for the disease and made eligibility for this law almost impossible for workers. Clauses that made eligibility difficult involved the length of employment a worker had to endure before they could claim workman’s compensation under this law. The hearings that existed brought attention to the danger of working with silica dust and the risks involved with working in tunnels and mines, though they did not do enough for the victims and their families.

In the late 1930s a lot of news-magazines such as Time and Newsweek were publishing articles about the Hawk’s Nest Incident and the dangers of silica dust. The nationwide coverage that Silicosis had now received, made other industrial projects aware of the dangers associated with it and what their workers could be subjected to. Silicosis remained absent from the list of diseases that could be claimed under the workman’s compensation laws until the 1940s.

Fast forward to today and there have been slow strides in making OSHA standards to protect these workers from such aforementioned hazards specific to Silica dust. How so? They have recently adopted a new final rule that affects many industries and how they must approach Silica dust. Please look for my upcoming blog for more information on this ruling.

Other Articles in the Silica Blog Series

2 Million Plus Workers Get Protection From Deadly Dust! (Part 2)