People go to work to make a living, not to die or become disabled on the job. Illinois coal miners have traditionally been among the leaders in the occupational health and safety movement.
Coal fueled the economy of Illinois, providing a ready source of fuel for industry, railroads, electric power and home heating. It also cost the miners who dug it hundreds of deaths and thousands of disabling injuries: 259 fatalities in Cherry, IL in 1909 and 111 in Centralia, IL in 1947. Coal produced great fortunes for some and great misery for many.
To fight for their very lives, coal miners organized the United Mine Workers Union and forced the employers to do what they should have done all along---create a safer workplace. Coal miners also pushed for workers' compensation, mine inspection and other safety laws to protect themselves while underground.
Across Illinois, all kinds of other workers organized and joined reformers like Alice Hamilton (1869-1970) to demand safer and healthier workplaces. Alice Hamilton worked with Jane Addams at Hull House to bring this issue before the public. This struggle continues today as new hazards are uncovered and old ones still persist.
It is said that eternal vigilence is the price of liberty. The same is true of occupational safety. It doesn't matter whether you are deep underground exposed to deadly explosions, or high up in an air conditioned office exposed deadly toxic indoor air, organized workers are the first line of defense against workplace hazards.
Photo courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center, Morris Library, Southern Illinois University Carbondale.