A Brief History of Silica Exposure in the United States

During the Great Depression, many workers were laid off and hunting for jobs in the United States. Work was hard to come by and surviving employers were seeking efficiency and stability – much like we are seeing today during the pandemic. As businesses tightened up, so did the evaluations of incoming workers. Laid off foundry workers and miners were dealt a major blow when pre-employment tests revealed they had severe lung damage from occupational exposure to respirable crystalline silica (RCS). The findings among these hard-working blue-collar men marked the beginning of widespread interest in the occupational disease known as silicosis.

Hawk’s Nest Disaster

Paralleling the hit to foundry workers and miners was the Hawk’s Nest Tragedy in West Virginia in the 1930’s. Construction of a three-mile tunnel through Gauley Mountain in West Virginia required drilling and blasting of rock containing the naturally occurring mineral, silica. Respirable dust was created inside the tunnel from rock containing exceedingly high levels of silica. Within a year of the project launch, workers began experiencing accelerated onset of silicosis. The disease typically takes 10 to 30 years to show in consistently exposed workers. However, hundreds of workers, mostly African American, died by the time the project had finished. Many more experienced silicosis onset years after the tunnels completion. The Air Hygiene Foundation was developed in response to this tragedy and silicosis became a compensable occupational disease.

Sandblasting in the West Texas Oil Fields