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April 27, 2003 7:38 AM
Silicosis - What Have We Learned Since the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel Project in 1931?

 In 1929, thirty-five contractors bid on a privately built hydro-electric dam project in West Virginia that required a three-mile-long tunnel drilled through solid rock. It became known as the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. In order to dig this tunnel a vast number of unskilled workers were needed and a disproportionate share of these men were black (75% of the nearly 3,000 men who worked at least part-time in the tunnel). Unfortunately, hundreds of workers died as a result of developing the disease silicosis. Silicosis results from inhalation of metallic or mineral dust, which causes particles of silica to be absorbed by cells deep within the lungs. These cells become scarred and restrict the ability to breathe and eventually cause disability. In severe cases, silicosis can cause death. At congressional hearings held in 1936, it was alleged that as many as 476 men died as a result of working on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel. Silicosis claims were filed on behalf of many of these tunnel workers, but the civil justice system failed. After a lengthy court battle that went to the West Virginia Supreme Court, causing further delays, a jury deadlocked in the first test case. Hundreds more remained to be tried. Eventually, 146 litigants received compensation through a settlement that paid amounts ranging from $30.00 to $1600.00. A special statute was then enacted which attempted to cover these claims under the Workers’ Compensation Act. The purpose of this paper is to explain the various workers’ compensation occupational disease statutes concerning silicosis, to discuss current safety features under OSHA, and to explain the reasons that silicosis is still being diagnosed in today’s workplace. Further, the paper will discuss the failure of the workers’ compensation system to adequately compensate workers who develop silicosis and discuss alternative methods of compensation, which will hopefully move society toward a safer and healthier workplace. 

Asbstract of Article by
Leonard Jernigan, Esq.
North Carolina

Rome - June 2003

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