Union Carbide a.k.a. Praxair

Wednesday, August 08, 2007


“I wouldn’t give you $2.50 for all the niggers on the job.”
Union Carbide Representative
- congressional hearings testimony 1936

From African Americans to East Indians, Union Carbides regard for minorities is unchanged.

The power of "PR" Burying the Hawk's Nest Disaster

It's recognized as America's deadliest industrial accident, but no one knows how many workers died from the dust they inhaled drilling a three-mile tunnel through what has been described as a mountain of "almost pure silica" near Hawks Nest, West Virginia, in the early 1930's.

What is known is hundreds of migrant and mostly poor workers, at the direction and full knowledge of Union Carbide, were sent with no safety protection to work every day in conditions the company knew would cause painful death. The result - within a year workers began dying of silicosis - a disease that normally takes 20 to 30 years to contract - at rates too high to imagine.

In a chapter of their recently released book, "Trust Us, We're Experts," Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber describe the deplorable conditions at Hawks Nest and how industry implemented a public relations campaign that not only improved the industry's image but all but removed the disaster at Hawks Nest from the country's collective memory.

Rampton and Stauber write, "The road that led from the workers' homes to the work site became known as the 'death march.' On their way home, the workers would be covered in white rock dust, giving them a deathlike appearance. Many of them were disturbingly thin, sick, coughing and bleeding. 'I can remember seeing the men, and you couldn't tell a black man from a white man. They were just covered in white dust.' Recalled a woman who lived near the Hawk's Nest tunnel."

Death tolls from what has become known as
"the Hawks Nest Incident" have ranged from a few hundred to over two thousand workers killed. At the time, so disgusted were Americans at learning of the incident, Congress was pressed into mounting a full inquiry into the disaster. The investigation showed Union Carbide not only knew of the health hazard and willfully disregarded safety equipment and techniques to guard against exposure, but even went so far as to instruct company doctors to withhold from their patients the source and extent of their condition.

The investigation also revealed that thousands of workers across the country were developing silicosis as a result of their working conditions.

All of the attention brought on by the tragedy heightened interest in work conditions and silicosis. Magazines and scientific journals went to work publishing articles on the "dusty trades" while the Department of Labor declared "war" on silicosis.

This was good news for workers.
However, it was not so good news for business.

Days following the end of the Congressional investigation into Hawks Nest, fearing impending lawsuits, industry executives formed the
Air Hygiene Foundation (AHF) to "give everyone concerned an undistorted picture of the subject." The "subject" in this case being silicosis.

Using leading scientist and public officials, the AHF raised doubts about the diagnosis and effect of the disease. The industry began implementing voluntary reform measures designed to improve their heartless image as much as to reduce the debilitating, often deadly effects of the disease.

So successful was AHF at beating back silicosis, that by 1940, AHF claimed 225 member companies, including some of the most toxic of the day, such as American Smelting and Refining, United States Steel, PPG industries, and of course, Union Carbide.
AHF over the years has widened its reach to cover a growing assortment of occupational health areas, changing its name in the process, first to the Industrial Hygiene Foundation and then to the Industrial Health Foundation.

As for the legacy of the Hawk's Nest disaster, Rampton and Stauber offer the following observation:"In the mid-1930s, silicosis was regarded as the 'king of occupational diseases,' as well known and notorious as asbestos would become in the 1990s. Thanks in large measure to the work of AHF, however, it began to fade from the headlines by the end of the decade" It's disappearance from the headlines is arguably a bigger scandal than the cover-up at Hawk's Nest, because the disease itself has not been eliminated, even though its cause is well understood and avoidable." © 2006 Wisconsin Laborers District Council

Hawk's Nest: A Novel
by John Skidmore
The building of a tunnel at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, beginning in 1930 has been called the worst industrial disaster in American history: more died there than in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire and the Sunshine and Farminton mine disasters combined. When West Virginia native Hubert Skidmore tried to tell the real story in his 1941 novel, Union Carbide and Carbon Corporation apparently convinced publisher Doubleday, Doran & Co. to pull the book from publication after only a few hundred copies had appeared. This is the riveting tale of starving men and women making their way from all over the Depression-era United States to the hope and promise of jobs and a new life. What they find is "tunnelitis" or silicosis, a disease that killed over seven hundred workers, a large number of them African Americans, virtually all of them poor.

  • Additional Reading Hawks Nest

  • Say What?

    “$500 is plenty good for an Indian”
    Dow Public Affairs Specialist Kathy Hunt, 2002, referring to the average compensation received by the Bhopal victims.

    "Companies that don't meet their responsibilities to all their constituencies will have a difficult time. Responsible customers won't want to buy their products. Talented people won't want to work for them. Enlightened communities won't want them as neighbors, and wise investors won't entrust them with their economic futures."
    William Stavropoulos, Chairman and CEO of Dow Chemical, quoted in "The Business of Business Managing Corporate Social Responsibility: What Business Leaders are Saying and Doing 2002-2007"

    "Union Carbide has a moral responsibility in this matter, and we are not ducking it."
    Warren Anderson, Time Magazine, December 24, 1984

    "When all this is over, I don't think anyone will accuse Union Carbide of stonewalling or running away from the issue."
    Warren Anderson, The Washington Post, February 24, 1985

    "Safety is the responsibility of the people who operate our plants. You can't be there day in and day out."
    Warren Anderson, April 1, 1985 issue of Time Magazine

    "This is most inconvenient. We've got people coming to dinner."
    Pressed to ask her husband to say what his current feelings were on the continuing suffering of more than 130,000 people in Bhopal, Mrs. Anderson snapped, "I told you, we are giving a dinner party, and it isn't even catered." Mrs. Anderson, and her husband, the wanted fugitive Warren, have been found living a life of luxury in the Hamptons in 2002.

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