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The Hawks Nest Tunnel Silicosis Disaster: Exposing Occupational Diseases

On Behalf of | Apr 4, 2012 | Black Lung, Chicago, Occupational Illness |

One thing is certain when an economic crisis hits – jobs become scarce and people become desperate for work. This was especially true during the Great Depression, when unemployment in the United States averaged 25%. As the need for jobs increased, not only were more workers willing to take riskier employment, fewer employers were making the effort to ensure worker safety. Few events highlight this more than the Hawks Nest Tunnel disaster where hundreds of workers died or were sickened by exposure to silica dust. This tragedy not only raised awareness of silicosis, a dangerous occupational disease, but helped to improve safety standards and working conditions for all workers today.

Silicosis is a lung disease caused through the inhalation of silica dust. Silica, a crystal found in rock, often becomes ground into tiny particles during processes such as mining, tunneling, sandblasting and construction. These particles are easily inhaled, and can lead to permanent and potentially deadly damage to the lungs. Silicosis, in fact, is known as one of the world’s oldest occupational diseases. So by 1930, when construction began on the Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia, the dangers of silica dust were known. Additionally, tests of the site had already shown that the rock through which they would be tunneling contained high silica content. Yet, not even the minimum safety standards of the day to protect workers from silicosis were followed during its construction. While upper management and engineers were warned to wear masks when visiting the site, workers were not provided with any sort of protection. Lack of ventilation and dust suppression procedures meant the air was often so thick with silica dust it was difficult for workers to see. As a result, before construction on the tunnel had even finished, workers began to sicken and die.

While there is no way to know the exact number of workers affected, one congressional hearing cited 476 deaths, and another study suggested a death toll as high as 764. Sadly, it’s impossible to determine the real scope of the tragedy. Damage caused by silicosis may not emerge for years after exposure. Coupled with the fact that most of the mine’s workers were highly transient, tracking of the illness was extremely difficult. Regardless, news of the disaster began to spread, eventually leading to several lawsuits and an investigation in 1936 by the U.S. House of Representatives. Ultimately, the tragedy drastically increased awareness of the dangers of silica exposure and occupational diseases in general. By 1937, laws relating to workers with silicosis had been enacted in 46 states.

Today, cases of silicosis are far lower than in the past. The Centers for Disease Control states that from 1968-2002, silicosis-related deaths dropped 93%. However, a report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration approximates that annually over two million workers in the U.S. are still exposed to silica. The World Health Organization estimates that annually 300 U.S. workers die from its effects, but suspects that many more cases go undiagnosed. And silicosis is just one of many occupational lung diseases effecting workers. Illnesses caused by exposure to workplace hazards like dusts, carcinogens, and toxic fumes continue to be far too common. Yet even today, many workers are still stymied by outdated laws when proving their illness is work-related. If you believe you have a work-related illness or injury, contact an Illinois workers compensation attorney for help in getting the treatment and benefits you need.

About the Author: Brooke Haley is a Marketing Associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation lawyers that practice in the areas of Workers’ Compensation and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts in the State of Illinois. For more information about Illinois workers compensation attorney,please visit

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