People, Place, and Time

Telling my family's stories

Black Lung in the Coal Mines

The historian William Graebner has a nice book on the history of occupational safety in the American coal mines, called Coal-mining safety in the Progressive Period: the Political Economy of Reform. I thought I’d summarize a bit of it here relevant to the Kolupkas, several of whom likely died from ‘black lung,’ including Andrew.

In the beginning of the 20th century, most doctors that saw coal miners were essentially company men, employed in company-run towns on company-owned land. This produced a powerful set of incentives to deny the existence of occupational diseases associated with coal-mining. When a miner presented with breathing difficulty and the classic symptoms of what was then called black lung or asthma, the doctor typically looked for a single cause and a single disease. In the case of black lung, there is no single cause – it appears to be the overwhelming presence of coal dust in the lungs that causes a variety of lung-related complications, rather than a single type of particle causing a single type of disease. Hence, it was easy, and lucrative, to discount claims of ‘black lung’ being caused by coal-mining, and the mines could continue as usual.

In addition, most political bodies were dominated by the coal barons and other petty capitalists in the late 19th and early 20th century, and miners were generally immigrants with poor educations and little or no English skill (it does not appear Andrew Kolupka could count himself as speaking English until after 1900, and he was marked as illiterate until 1910 – when he was almost 50 years old). Thus, the miners found, on the one side, a doctor employed by the coal mine, and on the other side, a politician who owned the coal mine.

This state of affairs did not begin to change until the late 1960s – long after Andrew Kolupka and his brother Valentine had died. It took protests, legislation, and coal-ming disasters to build enough political capital to begin to consider that ‘black lung’ might actually be a real disease, and really be killing miners. One health specialist estimated that 125,000 men were suffering from some form of black lung in the 1960s, and the disease was not (and is not) curable, meaning that the lung impairment lasts for the life of the sufferer.

So, in the time of Andrew Kolupka, it was exceptionally unlikely that there would be any recognition on the part of the Spring Valley Coal Company that his ‘asthma’ was caused by the terrible conditions in the mines, and his family received no compensation for it. Considering the politics of the time, it is interesting that the doctor even noted that ‘asthma’ was likely an aggravating or causal factor in the heart attack that killed him.


About Hattifattener

Age: 37 Lives: All over the place. Education: PhD, linguistics, UBC.

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This entry was posted on November 28, 2010 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , .
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