Beginning in 1927, the construction of the 3 mile long Hawks Nest Tunnel in West Virginia seemed like any other construction project. As workers tunneled farther and farther under Gauley Mountain they came across large amounts of silica, which was drilled and mined for use in electroprocessing steel. The workers did not wear masks, forcing them to breathe in the seemingly harmless dust. Not soon after, many of the workers developed silicosis, an occupational lung disease leading to inflammation and scarring of the lungs and the development of nodular lesions. Deaths from this avoidable occupational health hazard were seen within a year from the start of the tunnel project.
Since its inception in 1971, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has written regulations to protect workers from such occupational hazards. Most recently, OSHA amended their existing standards for worker’s exposure to silica dust by publishing the Occupational Exposure to Respirable Crystalline Silica rule in March of 2016. The existing regulation was updated because the previously published permissible exposure limits were not low enough and exposed workers to potentially hazardous levels of silica dust, which could lead to silicosis, lung cancer or even kidney disease. The newly published permissible exposure limit for all industries is 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air in an 8 hour time weighted average.
OSHA’s hard work in releasing this long-needed regulation update will likely ensure the good health of workers industry-wide for years to come. Ever improving regulations and medical technologies have distanced us from events like the Hawks Nest Tunnel incident nearly 90 years ago, and will hopefully lead to fewer respirable silica-related deaths in the future.