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“Must a Fellow Wait to Die?”: Workers Write to Frances Perkins

Silicosis, a deadly lung disease caused when workers inhale fine particles of silica dust—a mineral found in sand, quartz, and granite—became a national cause célèbre during the Great Depression when it was recognized as a significant disease among lead, zinc, and silver miners, sandblasters, and foundry and tunnel workers. In 1938 the federal government declared silicosis Americàs number one industrial health problem and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins convened a National Silicosis Conference in Washington, D.C. Despite such attempts to deal with the silicosis crisis, workers continued to complain of their plight. Hundreds of letters were sent to federal officials from across the country. The three letters included here (sent to Secretary Perkins) attested to workers’ desperation and to their confidence that the government would agree to investigate.

Altoona, Pennsylvania, November 23, 1937

Dear Miss Perkins:

Would you kindly inform me about the doctors that examined those silicosis victims in the West Virginia tunnel case. I have silicosis from rock tunnel work in the Anthracite fields the Dr. here has taken x-rays and say they can not do anything. Must a fellow just wait to die or can someone do something. I am forty seven years old, is there any compensation for same when the company busted up or quit operating but has holdings in other parts of state.

Any information will greatly appreciated.

J. T. ÒD.

Minneapolis, Minnesota, July 26, 1936

Dear Madam [Perkins]:

Am writing in regards to some information in regards to Silica in tunnel work. We are working 67 ft underground, and in sandrock which in one place near us tested 98.3 per cent silica. We are also faced with the problem of damp air which is blowed in to us by a fan which is connected to an airphole pipe drilled from the top of the ground. We have one man who had to lay off because of loss of weight, he went to the City Hospital, and they said he had what they call sandrock poison. I understand there is no such thing as that, and that is nothing but Silicosis and are afraid to tell him. I would like to know whether there is a poison such as sandrock poison. Would also like to get some information regards to combating the damp air and first aid treatment for Silicosis so we can fight them conditions. I myself carry a first aid certificate from the Bureau of Mines No. 703925F. Any information on this we would like, by all who are working with me as I am the only one which has a first aid card. A. E.

P.S. Would like an answer as soon as Possible.

West Nitrona, Pennsylvania, April 26, 1937

Dear Miss Perkins:

In regards to some Information on working conditions we have to put up with is unreasonable this line of work is Sand Blasting Plates and Sheets in Allegheny Still [Steel] Co At Brackenridge Pa there is a State Law on this kind of work on how long a man is suppose to work in side of a Unit and how much time he is suppose to be out in fresh air after he leaves the Unit in which he is working we have no place that is fit for a man to rest we come out from a unit after taking our Mask of Sweating and the only place there is that is out side of the Sand Blast Unit which we might as well be resting inside with out our masks I do not call this kind of working conditions good for any man or beast every once in a while we have to go down under neath of the Unit or in other words in the cellar to clean the sand out when It plugs up this place is full of Sand dust that is Impossible to see what you are doing no place to connect your mask to Is there any way that we can Compel this Company to make Decient working conditions If there is kindly let me know and I will take it up. . . .

E. L.

Please do not let no body know who is doing this or I will be out of a job.

Source: Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, “Slaves of the Depression:” Workers' Letters about Life on the Job (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 122,126, 128.

See Also:"What You Really Want Is an Autopsy": Frances Perkins and the U. S. Government Conference in Joplin, Missouri, 1940
"Hearty Big Strong Men All Died": The Lasting Impact of the Silicosis "Plague" in the 1930s