Two Thousand Dying on a Job: Silicosis deaths resulting from working on the Hawks Mountain Tunnel Project in West Virginia in the early 1930s

Bernard Allen, Two Thousand Dying on a Job. New Masses, 15 January 1935. “Two thousand workmen, according to the estimated figures of the contractors, were employed for over a period of two years [in the early 1930s] in drilling a three and three-quarter mile tunnel under a mountain from Gauley’s Junction to Hawk’s Nest in Fayette County, West Virginia. The rock through which these men bored was sandstone of a high silica content (in tunnel number one it ran from 97 percent pure silica to as high as 99.4 percent) and the contracting company neglected to provide any safety devices.”

Excerpt from story:

Almost as soon as the tunnel was started, men began dying. They were robust, hard-muscled men. Many of them had lived all their lives near Gauley where the rock cropping out on the roads is sandstone, largely made up of silica. Yet they were unaware of the risk they ran in blasting into the rock without the safeguard of masks and wet drills. With every breath they were inhaling a massive dose of microscopic silica dust.

Silica dust is deadly in large doses. Proof of this is that every man who worked in the tunnel any length of time and who had been examined recently by a doctor was found to have developed a lung disease that cannot be stopped once it has started. Finally these men must strangle to death from silicosis….