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
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,