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INVESTIGATION RELATING TO HEALTH CONDITIONS OF WORKERS EMPLOYED IN THE CONSTRUCTION AND MAINTENANCE OF PUBLIC UTILITIES
TUESDAY, JANUARY 21, 1936
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES,
COMMITTEE ON LABOR,
Washington, D. C. The subcommittee this day met at 10:30 a. m., Hon. Glenn Griswold presiding, for further consideration of House Joint Resolution 449 to authorize the Secretary of Labor to appoint a board of inquiry to ascertain the facts relating to health conditions of workers employed in the construction and maintenance of public utilities.
Mr. GRISWOLD. The subcommittee will please be in order.
STATEMENT OF GILBERT LOVE
Mr. GRISWOLD. Our first witness this morning is Mr. Gilbert Love, of Pittsburgh, Pa. Mr. Love, will you please give the committee your address and occupation?
Mr. LOVE. I live in Schenley Arms Apartment, Pittsburgh, Pa., and I am a reporter for the Pittsburgh Press.
Mr. GRISWOLD. As such reporter, did you make an investigation at Gauley Bridge, W. Va., of the Hawks Nest tunnel ?
Mr. LOVE. I did.
Mr. LOVE. That is rather a large order all at once. But, we went down there—a photographer and I went down there. I take it it would be better to tell you chronologically what we found.
We spent 2 days at Gauley Bridge and the surrounding territory and I spent 3 days at Charleston after that getting facts from various persons whom I thought might know the situation. We stopped in Gauley Bridge. The first persons I approached were two workmen, and I asked them whether they knew anybody there who were suffering from silicosis that had been contracted in this Hawks Nest Tunnel. One of them smiled and said, "Yes; I have this disease." He said he was suffering from it at the time. The other man said he was working in the tunnel at that time, that the tunnel was practically complete and they were doing only somo finishing work on it.
I asked the man who had silicosis how he knew he had it and he told me he said that the doctor told him so. I asked him whether there was any chance of his recovery, and he told me that the doctor told him that he would have to die eventually. It seemed that the
doctor told him that he might be taken by some other fatal disease before silicosis ended his days.
We talked to Dr. L. R. Harless, who, as we had been told, had handled many of these cases, more than any other doctor there. At first Dr. Harless did not like to talk about the matter. He said he had been subjected to so much publicity on that account that he did not like to talk about the matter. It appeared that the doctor thought he had been involved in too many of those court cases; but finally he opened up and told us about the matter.
He said that in the winter of 1931, I believe it was, this disease first became noticeable. I think he told us that about 70 persons died of it that winter. Of course, at that time they did not know for sure just what the matter meant, but he was beginning to suspect that there was something seriously wrong. They did not know it was silicosis that was killing these men. They chose to call it pneumonia, tuberculosis, and other lung diseases, but he continued and explained that silicosis is closely related to those other lung diseases. Silica dust frequently aggravates both those and other lung disorders, and silicosis might be blamed for these diseases, although they were looked upon or listed as tuberculosis and pneumonia.
He further stated that he at one time attended a lecture on the subject of silicosis somewhere in the East, and he began to get literature on the subject and to figure on whether or not it might not be silicosis that was troubling these men. Finally he had a chance to do some autopsies and he found a great amount of silica in the lungs of the affected men. Some of them had as much as 50 percent solid matter in their lungs after other matter had been subtracted. I believe he said that out of a group of 10 men upon which they performed autopsies, nine of them had silicosis or at least a considerable amount of silica in their lungs.
After talking to Dr. Harless we went on up the road and stopped where a group of workmen were engaged on a wall under the Public Works Administration. We asked them if there was any silicosis victim around, and immediately three or four men stepped forward and said they had silicosis at least in a mild form; that they were able to work, but they could only do it with difficulty: They stated that they suffered pain and from a shortness of breath. These men said they did not know how long they could keep on working. Several of these men told us that they had silicosis in their families, and they wanted us to go up and see various members of their families. One man told us that his son was in bed as a result of silicosis, and he was too weak to get up and be around very
much. We found several cases of silicosis around there. I cannot recall just where they were.
We went back to Charleston, and the next day we went back into the country again and contacted several of these affected persons, two of whom were Mr. and Mrs. Charles Jones. I believe that both of them testified here yesterday. The Jones family lost three sons, a son-in-law, and a boarder as a result of silicosis. The father, Charles Jones, is the only one left of the family, and he is suffering from it. We walked up steps with some of these silicosis victims and they wheezed painfully when they got to the top. That was especially true of Mr. Jones. He said he could not undergo any exertion. He had made a settlement with the company and as a result bought himself a two-room house where he was living. He had a considerable family there. He was the only male member, and, according to reliable reports, he is doomed by this disease.
We went on up the road farther and stopped at a little place that had been pointed out to us. There we found a young man who was apparently the sole support of his mother and sister. He told us that he had silicosis, and that he had not been able to do much work recently.
We talked with a Negro who was about 17 years of age, and he claimed that he also had silicosis. He told us a lot of stuff about working conditions in that tunnel. He stated that the working conditions had not been very good; that the dust was very thick; that the men were required to work in that dust, and when they faltered in their work for any reason, even physical disability, they were discharged.
We went on farther up the road and stopped at a little country store that had been pointed out to us. The proprietor of that store said that he had a mild case of silicosis. He further stated that when he first came out of the tunnel he was very much emaciated. He said that he had gained a little weight since then by living more or less in the open spaces.
On the way back we stopped across the river from the town of Vanetta, where, as we had been told, many of these workmen lived. They lived there while they worked in the tunnel. We found a Negro standing there preparing to go across the river in a rowboat, and we asked him how many men there had formerly worked in the tunnel. He did not know, but he said possibly a half dozen or 10. He further told us that all of them were suffering from silicosis. He said that he himself had the disease. He was able to work only about 2 days a week in a mine because of shortness of breath and general fatigue. He further told us that he could get more work if he were only able to do it, but the disease affected him in such a serious way that he could not labor more than 2 days a week. He claimed that practically everybody else there was in the same shape. This colored man told us that on a mountain above Vanetta, a place which is quite inaccessible, so much so that we did not go there, there was a Negro boy who had wasted away so that he was no larger than my arm. He said there were many such cases in the mountains, where the people have gone to die. The people affected by this disease had gone back into the bills also to die.
We went over to Fayetteville, which is the county seat of the county in which Gauley Bridge is located, and wanted to talk to several lawyers, but we could not find them.
During the course of my investigation I had a long talk with Attorney A. A. Lily, of Charleston, a member of the law firm that had taken many of these cases for the workmen. Mr. Lily made a number of serious charges. He said that the wet drilling had not been done, at least all the time; that the dust was thick; that the conditions were very bad and inexcusable indeed. Also, he charged that there had been considerable tampering with juries in the two cases that had actually come to trial as test cases in Fayette County. There was a hung jury; perhaps there were two hung juries. It was stated that the jurors were allowed to go home at night and that people interested in the suits were waiting outside the courtroom for the jurors with automobiles. Therefore it was suspected that there had been some fixing of the jury. The allegations made by Mr. Lily were largely the same as those that had been made before. Mr. Lily stated that he had done considerable research work in connection with this matter in the preparation for trials, and that members of his law firm also had done considerable research work along this line. Mr. Lily stated that he had been advised by silicosis experts from all parts of the country who had come down there to examine these cases in connection with these lawsuits or on otheir own account that anybody who had been exposed to cilica dust for any length of time could not possibly escape silicosis in some form or another. It seemed that 2,000 or 2,500 men had worked in this tunnel, but possibly not all of them had worked long enough to contact silicosis. Anyway, he had been advised, as he told us, that all who had been working in that tunnel for any length of time had or would get silicosis in some form or other eventually.
I talked to several lawyers, but not at great length, lawyers who had followed the cases and who might be considered impartial, not on one side or the other. One of them informed me that there had been considerable dirt slung in connection with the cases; that there had been charges and countercharges and therefore it was very difficult to dig out the exact facts. He said that the cases presented a number of legal problems, one of which was connected with the statute of limitations, which kept the men from filing suits more than a year after they had ceased working in the tunnel.
Silicosis, apparently, does not develop in a large number of cases until a year or 2 or even 3 years after exposure. That makes the legal angle of the matter very complicated indeed.
It was impossible for me to determine the number of deaths that had resulted from silicosis. There were no authentic records that I could find. I went to the State capitol, where I visited the bureau of mines, the bureau of health, the compensation commission, and various other departments of the State government that I thought might be expected to have such records, but none of them had it. The department of health has on file death certificates covering these alleged victims, and those certificates list most of the deaths as having been caused by pneumonia. One could not tell from those certificates whether the victims had worked in the Hawks Nest Tunnel. Most of the certificates showed that the victims had died as the result of pneumonia and other lung disorders; therefore, it was impossible to get the information for which we were searching.
Mr. GRISWOLD. Where did you go to get those records?
Mr. LOVE. We went to the Department of Health of the State of West Virginia at Charleston.
Even if you could find records in the State of West Virginia, they would give only a part of the picture, because, as I understand, approximately three-fourths of the men who worked in that tunnel were Negroes imported from the South, and when they became ill, as I have been told, many of them went home. When they could not work any longer they left West Virginia and went to their homes in the South. Many of them did not know what the trouble was with them in the early stages of this disease; therefore, they scattered all over the South, from Georgia to the Carolinas, and possibly into Alabama and Tennessee. Obviously, it would take a detective agency to find out how many of those former employees of the tunnel died.
As to how many have this disease now, that is a hard matter to determine, but you might say that this investigation of ours provided a cross section of the people there. We stopped people on the streets, on the roads, and anywhere else, and inquired about the disease. Í think it may be said that we found about 1 of every 3 or 4 men we stopped had silicosis or claimed to have it. As a result of that, I am inclined to believe that it must have been pretty widespread throughout that area.
A large portion of the men in that district worked in the tunnel, because there was very little other work to do there. The mines were not doing very well. Those workers had been engaged there and that accounts, possibly, for the fact that so many of them claimed to have it or had it.
That is the general story, Mr. Griswold. If there are any questions that you wish to ask, possibly they will bring out something else. I have some notes with me that I made some time ago.
Mr. GRISWOLD. Before we examine Mr. Love, may I remind you that the committee requested the presence of Dr. Harless; that Dr. Harless wired us that he could not be here and that a letter would follow. I now have that letter. Probably members of the committee will wish to examine Mr. Love in the light of that letter. Therefore, I shall read it into the record. It says:
L. R. HARLESS, M. D.,
Gauley Bridge, W. Va., January 19, 1936. Hon. WILLIAM J. CONNERY, Jr., M. C.,
House of Representatives, Washington, D. C. DEAR SIR: Due to illness of my wife and urgent professional duties, I am unable to appear before your committee on January 20 as per your request by telegram.
I presume your committee wishes to obtain certain information from me in regard to certain conditions arising from the construction of the Hawks Nest power development near Gauley Bridge, W. Va. Therefore, I am putting down in this letter the information which I would give you verbally were it possible for me to appear before you.
First, permit me to say that this situation at Gauley Bridge, W. Va., has been grossly exaggerated by statements appearing in certain newspapers and by wild rumors current in this section. No doubt these statements have left in the public mind an exaggerated and erroneous impression of the conditions as they actually exist. In order to clarify the situation, here are the facts, as in my opinion and judgment they really exist.
In June of 1933 a medical commission composed of Dr. Emery R. Hayhurst, of Columbus, Ohio; Dr. W. R. Hughey, of Charleston, W. Va., and myself were designated to examine a large number of claimants who had filed suit against the contracting company for damages resulting from the alleged affection of silicosis contracted in the construction of the tunnel, and whose suits were settled out of court. At the conclusion of our examinations we found that out of 307 claimants 13 had died from silicosis and that 139 had some lung damage, by reason of dust, ranging from very moderate to advanced silicosis; many of these cases showed coexisting tuberculosis. Since the examinations made by this commission there have been two additional deaths which have come under my personal observation, which makes a total of 15 deaths resulting from silicosis.
I have seen statements in the press to the effect that 476 persons have died from silicosis and that 1,500 to 2,000 are affected with the disease and doomed to die; all of course former workers in the tunnel. This, in my opinion, is a