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.
In the early part of the 20th century, the second industrial revolution in the United States was in full swing. Between 1870 and 1915, the U.S. economy and population experienced one of its greatest periods of growth and change, with industries like railroads, oil, steel and coal enjoying unprecedented expansion and demand. However, this era was also punctuated by numerous industrial tragedies as a result of little to no public and worker safety regulations or oversight. Those injured or killed in these events often had little recourse or justice available to them. However, some tragedies were too devastating to ignore. And it was one such event that ultimately led to sweeping changes in labor and compensation laws – the Cherry Mine disaster.