Hawk’s Nest Tunnel tragedy highlights occupational disease (1930-32)

View the essay (PDF): The Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Tragedy

When Pennsylvania, in 1915, enacted its workers’ compensation law, it omitted coverags for occupational diseases like Black Lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis) and silicosis. This omission was quite momentous, as Pennsylvania 100 years ago was a major coal mining state, and even then everyone knew that dusty mine environments created the hazards of these two diseases.  Only in the late 1930’s, when labor was strong in the state legislature, were these diseases, and others, added in a separate Occupational Disease Law.

Our neighboring state of West Virginia at first also omitted occupational diseases.  Like Pennsylvania, however, West Virginia added coverage for dust diseases in the 1930’s.

Pressure on the West Virginia legislature to add such diseases came in part from the early 1930’s tragedy at Hawk’s Nest, in Fayette County, about three hours south of Pittsburgh.  Indeed, when it comes to occupational diseases, many identify the “Hawk’s Nest Incident” as America’s worst industrial disaster.  There, the workers were exposed to heavy concentrations of silica dust as they participated in the whirlwind digging of a tunnel through a mountain of solid silica quartz.  Many became sickened right as they labored, with hundreds dying in and around the tunnel.  The most reliable estimate establishes that 764 workers died, 581 of whom were African-Americans.

The essay linked above recounts this seminal event in occupational disease history, as analyzed over the decades in public health literature, in fiction, and in poetry.