From the desk of Steve Kantoniemi:

Recently, I was able to attend the International Union BAC class on “SILICOSIS.”  What I know about silicosis is that it will KILL YOU! It will lead to “Tuberculosis.”

Silicosis: is lung fibrosis caused by the inhalation of dust containing silica.

Tuberculosis: is an infectious bacterial disease characterized by the growth of nodules (tubercles) in the tissues, especially the lungs.
Silicosis is an Occupational Disease that is preventable simply by wearing the proper Safety Equipment.  However; for the last 35 years and even now, I am still seeing members creating dust and breathing in silica dust without the proper safety equipment.  I let them know of the hazards that silica is causing them and others around them. Our apprenticeship instructors at Masonry Development Center continue to educate our apprentices on the hazards associated with silica. All our members should be implementing the most effective methods to reduce silica dust and using proper personal protective equipment. Here is some good information about how long BAC has been fighting silicosis, and how it came about.

Please see a list of websites below if you are interested in learning more about silicosis.

Silica Safe Website:
OSHA, “Silicosis.”
BAC YouTube channel:

Work Safe, Work Smart.

Labor’s Long Struggle for a Safer Silica Standard

            The worst industrial disaster in Unite States history occurred at Hawks Nest, WV in the early 1930s.  Located on the New River midway between Charleston and Beckley, Hawks nest was the site of a Union Carbide Company hydroelectric project.  The project called for the construction of a dam and a 36-foot diameter, 3.7-mile long tunnel that cut through the adjacent mountain.  Instead of employing the local West Virginian workforce, which had a strong union tradition, Union Carbide took advantage of a mostly African American, migratory workforce who were desperate for work, easily exploitable, and isolated from the larger community.

Working conditions in the tunnel were deadly.  The process of blasting and loading debris filled the tunnel with thick clouds of dust from rock that was over 96 percent silica.  The company did not properly ventilate the tunnel or provide workers with any form of protection from the dust.  To speed up construction, the company forced workers back into the tunnel immediately after blasting. Given these practices, workers inhaled silica dust for long periods of time causing many to acquire acute silicosis.  By the end of construction in 1935 over 750 workers had died from the disease.

Silicosis is caused by the inhalation of crystalline silica dust.  Silica is approximately 1/100th the size of a grain of sand and is found in soil, sand, rock.  It is also found in masonry products such as brick and mortar, and it is especially dangerous in refractory bricklaying operations.  Today the Department of Labor and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) estimate that over 2 million American workers are exposed to silica dust each year.  As early as 1938 the Department of Labor has known how silicosis develops inside the body.

Dusty work environments that cause respiratory disease have been an occupational hazard since ancient times.  Industrialization increased the number of dusty jobs as employers implemented new work processes and technology in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The pneumatic jack hammer is an example of these new processes and technologies.

As industrialization and urbanization grew throughout the United States, the respiratory disease known as tuberculosis followed.  Tuberculosis, also called “consumption” is caused by the bacillus bacteria and is transmitted through the air.  Researchers in the late nineteenth century believed the spread of tuberculosis was a result of poor living conditions in urban environments.  However, researchers initially overlooked the correlation between dust inhalation and tuberculosis.  In fact, dust inhalation damaged and scarred the lungs making workers in the dusty trades more likely to acquire tuberculosis.  Also, researchers by the early twentieth century had yet to discover the occupational disease we know today as silicosis.  Consequently, work place related lung disease in that era was often thought to be tuberculosis rather than silicosis.  It would take researchers until the mid-1930s before silicosis was officially recognized and defined.

For over 100 years, workers and their unions have been fighting against dust exposure and related respiratory diseases in the workplace.  The granite stonecutters of Barre, Vermont led the way.  At the turn of the twentieth century the granite operators of Barre increasingly forced stonecutters and finishers to use dust generating tools on the shop floor.  The use of these tools combined with non-ventilated workspaces exposed workers to concentrated levels of silica dust causing many to acquire tuberculosis.  Unlike researchers of the era, the granite cutters believed that dust in the workplace caused tuberculosis.  They were right.  From 1896 to 1918, a period marked by the increased use of dust generating technology, the rate of tuberculosis amongst granite cutters increased 270 percent while tuberculosis infection rates for the rest of the country fell.

While the Barre, Vermont stonecutters led the national movement to limit dust exposure in the workplace, dusty worker environments and the scourge of tuberculosis also affected BAC members.  Throughout the first half of the twentieth century the BAC journal was full of death memorials to young union members struck down by tuberculosis, which at that time was also called “mason’s consumption.” By 1913, Tuberculosis caused one in seven BAC member deaths. Like the granite cutters, the BAC believed that tuberculosis was linked to dusty work environments. Throughout the early twentieth century the BAC used the bricklayer’s journal to help educate members on the threat of tuberculosis, as well as the need for proper workplace and community sanitation.  The union was also active in supporting the Christmas seals program, which raised money to help fight tuberculosis.

It wasn’t until the start of the twentieth century that researchers began to uncover the link between silica dust exposure and tuberculosis.  British researchers studying lung disease in South African gold mines discovered a correlation between dusty mines and high rates of tuberculosis. In the United States insurance statisticians Frederick L. Hoffman and Anthony J. Lanza produced reports that showed that hard rock miners, stone cutters, and foundry workers were all contracting tuberculosis at alarming rates.  Lanza’s research revealed that between 1917 and 1920 tuberculosis killed 2000 of every 100,000 thousand hard rock miners in Montana.  By the 1920s researchers not only proved that dust inhalation and tuberculosis were linked, they also

proved that silica dust inhalation caused a new occupational disease known as silicosis.

By the 1930s, a reinvigorated and expanding labor movement combined with the public’s outrage over the Hawks nest tragedy, brought pressure on the federal government to intervene in the growing national silicosis debate.  In fact, after Hawk’s nest, Labor Secretary Francis Perkins received numerous letters from workers all over the country about silica dust in the workplace urging her to take action.

Labor’s efforts led to the first National Silicosis Conference in 1936 chaired by Labor Secretary Francis Perkins.  By 1937 the committee had produced a report noting the dangers of silica dust inhalation and offered simple and practical procedures to limit dusty work environments.

In response to the federal government’s effort to address silicosis in the 1930s, employers formed the Air Hygiene Foundation, later renamed the Industrial Hygiene Foundation, to oppose and obstruct silica regulation. The association argued that silica dust exposure was inevitable, and better managed through engineering, medical improvements, and employer oversight, instead of regulation by the federal government.  The employers won, and by the 1940s silicosis was confined to the worker’s compensation system; a system not intended to prevent occupational diseases.  Workers who acquired silicosis could seek compensation for the disease; however, no enforceable federal standard was established to help prevent it.  Consequently, countless workers throughout the postwar years continued to be exposed to silica dust in the workplace.

As the national spotlight on silicosis diminished in the postwar era, other occupational diseases such as black lung emerged to capture the nation’s attention. Throughout the 1960s, miners became politically active and mobilized against the epidemic of black lung.  They came together to pressure coal operators and politicians to recognize black lung as a legitimate occupational disease requiring regulation.  By the early 1970s with the help of a national labor campaign to achieve federal safety and health legislation, the Mine Safety and Health Act (MSHA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) were both enacted.

The American Conference of Governmental Industrial Hygienists (ACGIH) developed OSHA’s first silica exposure standard in 1970.  By 1974 NIOSH completed comprehensive studies on silica dust exposure and recommended that all abrasive blasting be banned and suggested that the initial silica standard be lowered by 80 percent.  In response to NIOSH’s proposal, employers of the dusty trades formed a collective organization known as the Silica Safety Association (SSA) in order to fight the passage and implementation of the new standard. Once again employers were successful in their effort to limit federal silica regulation.

From the early 1990s to the present the BAC has been at the forefront of the fight to limit silica exposure on jobsites. The union has worked with the department of labor, OSHA, and other labor unions to educate union members on the continued dangers of silica dust and the need to amend the standard.

The union created and distributed a flyer for members to take to their physicians to educate them on silicosis.  It was written in seven different languages and it informed the physician that his or her patient worked in a dusty trade and educated the physician on the signs and symptoms of silicosis.  Some BAC locals were also successful in bargaining for contract language designed to limit silica dust exposure by requiring employers to provide proper ventilation, respirators, and wet saws. Also, in states such as New Jersey and California, the BAC has worked to influence the passage of legislation adopting strong comprehensive standards to lower exposure limits.  However, most states have never introduced legislation regulating silica dust exposure.  The failure of states to regulate this hazard emphasized the need for federal intervention because even in a state like WV, which witnessed the Hawks nest tunnel tragedy, the legislature refused to vote on the bill.

By August 23, 2013, OSHA formally announced its plan to amend the 1970 silica standard by reducing the acceptable exposure limit by 80 percent.  Finally, in the spring of 2016, after the BAC’s long and tireless effort to amend the standard, OSHA adopted a new silica rule lowering the silica exposure limit to 50 micrograms.

80 years since the fist national silicosis conference in 1936 employers are still trying to resist silica regulation and failing to take responsibility to create a dust free work environment.  Employer groups testified against the new standard and the Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Manufacturers filed lawsuits to stop the implementation of the new standard.

Although employer organizations continue to fight the new silica rule, its adoption was indeed a great victory for the BAC, its members, and all working people; which proves that when labor makes a determined stand it can achieve great things.  As we have seen, for well over one hundred years’ workers and their organizations have been struggling to limit silica dust exposure in the workplace.  The progress that has been made will require the continued vigilance of the BAC, and its members, to ensure the permanence and effectiveness of the new standard.