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WORKED TO DEATH

To make a decent living, workers have often ignored personal safety

By Karen Ann Cullotta, a freelance writer and journalism teacher at Roosevelt University

January 29, 2006

When my father's blue Chevy station wagon entered the cul-de-sac of my childhood at the end of the day, our kitchen table was already set for supper. Stepping onto the driveway, a powdery veil of pale dust clinging to his work clothes, my father would remind me that a daughter's hug would have to wait.

"I'm dirty," he'd explain. "Let me change first."

Before we sat down to eat, my father would take a quick shower while my mother would shake asbestos dust--the detritus of my father's profession--from his clothes. Ever vigilant, my mother would presoak dad's dirty work clothes in the laundry tub before tossing the bundle in the washing machine.

I am an asbestos worker's daughter.

And while my father is long retired from his beloved trade, he and many of his best friends from the union hall share a sad truth they seldom speak of: lung abnormalities resulting from years of asbestos exposure.

"When we found out asbestos was bad, even after it was banned in the '70s, nobody quit," my father explained. "It was a way to make a good living."

When it comes to hazardous jobs, be it coal mining, forestry or construction, the opportunity to "make a good living" often upstages the specter of death by occupation.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 5,703 fatal work injuries were recorded in the U.S. in 2004. As collected by the National Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, the report shows construction as having the most fatal work injuries of any industry sector with 1,224, followed by transportation and warehousing with 829, and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting with 659.

The 2004 report finds that overall, 91 percent of fatal work injuries involved workers in private industry, with 9 percent of cases being federal, state and local government workers; for example, about 105 firefighters die each year in the line of duty.

Now, following the West Virginia mine disasters, in which a total of 14 miners died in less than a month, legislators are launching emergency investigations and vowing to enhance state and federal safety measures for the mining industry. Meanwhile, grieving families who have just buried their loved ones will face the grim task of watching their husbands, sons and daughters, fathers and grandfathers head back to work, plying their trade within the inscrutable face of a mine.

In the past few weeks, many have spoken eloquently about the culture of miners, of the intergenerational ties that bind a community to an industry that is inherently dangerous yet nonetheless an economic engine carrying legions of families to a better place.

Such was the case for my family, where after attending high school in the 1950s, my father and two uncles married, got their union cards and joined the ranks of Chicago's asbestos workers. The three families would add up to 13 children and almost 140 years of marriage and counting. For the next two decades, my father and uncles would spend their days on job sites throughout the city--the Prudential Building, the Art Institute, the Merchandise Mart--swaddling pipes with asbestos, a seemingly miraculous product used for insulation until it was banned in the early 1970s.

Thus the insulators would learn that they were no longer "asbestos workers" but "asbestos removers." Recently, my father reluctantly discussed with me this chapter of my family history. The quintessential storyteller, my father is left searching for words when asbestos exposure is the subject.

"For years, a lot of the guys were getting sick, but even the medical community didn't know enough about asbestos," he said.

Asbestos was eventually deemed deadly, and even non-smokers like my father were diagnosed with lung abnormalities such as bilateral thickening of the pleura, scarring and, in the worst cases, mesothelioma, a deadly form of cancer.

Unlike the West Virginia miners who died recently in the Sago disaster, victims of progressive illnesses such as asbestosis and black lung disease are not counted by the annual national census of fatal occupational injuries, although officials estimate the number of deaths stemming from on-the-job hazardous exposure and injury could be more than 1.3 million per year.

"We used to all sit down and eat our bag lunches, and there would be asbestos dust blowing all over the place," my father recalled quietly, more betrayed than bitter. "Insulators and miners ... we're no different than doctors or lawyers; it's just a different avenue of life we fell into."

I conclude our "interview," and my father is relieved that he can rise from my dining room table, refresh his cup of coffee and resume playing with his rambunctious 5-year-old granddaughter, who is soon swept up in a big hug, just like I was not so many years ago.

- - -

DARK AS A DUNGEON

Come and listen you fellows, so young and so fine,

And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mines.

It will form as a habit and seep in your soul,

'Till the stream of your blood is as black as the coal.

It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,

Where danger is double and pleasures are few,

Where the rain never falls and the sun never shines

It's dark as a dungeon way down in the mine.

It's a-many a man I have seen in my day,

Who lived just to labor his whole life away.

Like a fi end with his dope and a drunkard his wine,

A man will have lust for the lure of the mines.

I hope when I'm gone and the ages shall roll,

My body will blacken and turn into coal.

Then I'll look from the door of my heavenly home,

And pity the miner a-diggin' my bones.

The midnight, the morning, or the middle of day,

Is the same to the miner who labors away.

Where the demons of death often come by surprise,

One fall of the slate and you're buried alive.

-- Merle Travis, 1946

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune