Adding Injury to Insult: Black Workers and Occupational Hazards

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Adding Injury to Insult: Black Workers and Occupational Hazards

by Morris Davis

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 12, No. 2, March-April 1980, p. 29–31

Morris Davis is a staff member of the Labor Occupational Health Project, 2521 Channing Way, Berkeley, CA 94720. This article is reprinted from the LOHP Monitor.

Countless thousands of workers continually confront noise, chemicals, heat, and radiation on their jobs, often without knowledge of possible harmful consequences. One group particularly hard hit by dangerous job conditions is black workers. Blacks make up the largest single minority within the U.S. labor force, or 10 percent of the 77 million American workers. Approximately three million blacks are unskilled or semiskilled industrial workers; many are employed in known hazardous situations. Compared to whites and the general population, black workers have shorter life spans and suffer disproportionately from disease and disability due to their jobs. They also face other adverse job conditions in the form of discriminatory employment patterns and practices. 

Although only a small amount of research has been done in this area, blacks’ general health status and disproportionately high disability rates are an obvious consequence of discriminatory employment practices, job placement, and adverse job conditions. Blacks have a life expectancy of 62.2 years, compared to 71.9 for whites. Of the six states with the lowest life expectancy rates, five have the highest percentage of minority (black) workers — Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C. Proportionally, blacks have a much higher incidence of major heart diseases, cancer, influenza and pneumonia, diabetes, and tuberculosis. For blacks between the ages of 25 and 44, hypertention kills males 15 times more frequently than white males, and females 17 times more frequently than white females. 

Danger Employees Only

Job related disability and injury figures are also much higher for blacks than for whites. Fifteen percent of the approximately seven million black workers are unable to work any longer because of partial and permanent disabilities due to their jobs, compared to only 10 percent of white workers. A 1970 study indicated that blacks have 20 percent more restricted activity days than do whites. A 1972 Social Security survey found that although blacks were less likely than whites to report chronic disease, they were still one and one-half times more likely to be severely disabled. Finally, yearly statistics show that five out of 100 black workers are injured on the job each year, a much higher rate than for whites. 

1930: Gauley Bridge 

How can we account for this disproportionate incidence of disease and disability among blacks? To a large extent, black workers are forced by discriminatory employment practices into the least desirable, lowest paying, and most dangerous jobs. In addition, racist attitudes and practices have historically worsened the hazards of many jobs held by blacks. A dramatic example is the West Virginia Gauley Bridge disaster in 1930-31. Five thousand workers, most of whom were black, were recruited to tunnel through a mountain with a very high silica content. Exposure to silica dust can cause a disabling lung condition called silicosis. Although this disease usually takes a long time to develop, very high exposures can result almost immediately in silicosis. This is what happened at Gauley Bridge. A total of 500 workers eventually died. Of these, 169 blacks literally dropped dead in their tracks and were hurriedly buried in a field close by. 

But Gauley Bridge could have been avoided. Wet drilling as a means to prevent silica exposure was patented in Britain as early as 1713, and was certainly used in the U.S. before 1930. Yet this method was not used. Nor were the workers even informed of the known silica hazards, or provided with protective breathing devices. 

This kind of dramatic “mass murder” doesn’t happen all the time. However, black workers constantly face the same kind of racist employment practices and disregard for their moral and legal rights. The textile industry, with a 25 percent black workforce, still refuses to admit that byssinosis (brown lung disease) is caused by cotton dust. Some industries purposefully employ black workers at more hazardous jobs. In the iron and steel foundries, black workers are assigned to the furnaces on the assumption that they “absorb heat better,” and the electronics industry rationalizes placing “dark-skinned” minority workers in jobs which use caustic materials with the myth that skin irritations won’t be so noticeable on dark skin. 

1970: Coke Ovens 

In many industries, including metal, textile, agricultural, health services, laundry and dry cleaning, wood products, sanitation, rubber, chemical, and pharmaceutical, blacks continue to labor in the most dangerous, dirtiest, and lowest paying jobs under adverse job conditions, discriminatory job placement and employment practices. Although blacks make up only 22 percent of the basic steel industry workforce, 91 percent of them are assigned to the most dangerous process, coke plants. This process transforms bituminous coal into metallurgical coke for use at the blast furnaces by intensive heating of the coal. This process releases dangerous gases and dust particles, specifically the carcinogen (cancer-causing agent) benzo (a) pyrene, which is known to cause lung cancer. A 1971 study found that black coke oven workers had three times more respiratory cancer, eight times more deaths from lung cancer, and a significantly increased death rate from “all other causes” when compared to the general population. These statistics may explain why the highest incidence of lung cancer for U.S. black males is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, center of the basic steel industry.

The rubber industry also employs disproportionate numbers of black workers in the most dangerous areas. A nine-year mortality (death) study of 7,000 rubber workers found that nearly 60 percent of black rubber workers were employed in compounding and mixing areas. These workers are exposed to a number of cancer-causing chemicals, including beta-naphthylamine, benzene, asbestos, and various nitrosamines. Recent studies of rubber workers have shown increased death rates due to stomach, colon, bladder, and prostate cancer. Interestingly enough, U.S. blacks have the highest death rate due to prostate cancer in the world!  

What Can Be Done? 

Gauley Bridge and the hundreds of less-publicized incidents facing black workers every day haven’t significantly lessened since passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in 1970, which guarantees every worker a safe and healthful working environment. Many black workers still have no way of knowing what they’re exposed to and possible effects, until the damage is done. Although we suspect that blacks’ increased incidence of heart disease, hypertension, pneumonia, and other diseases might be due in part to environmental (including workplace) factors, not enough research has been done in this area to demonstrate a clear connection. Meanwhile black workers continue to suffer from a combination of hazardous job conditions and discriminatory employment practices. 

What can be done? Research aimed at identifying hazards of jobs employing large numbers of blacks is sorely needed, as are efforts to train black workers in the recognition and control of job hazards. Black health professionals and physicians need to be trained to identify occupational diseases, take work histories, and become more involved in the area of occupational health. Finally, the black community needs to become more aware of this problem, for it is the community that ultimately shoulders the burden for the dead and disabled.