Abstract: Race and Cancer in the Steel Industry: The Battle over the OSHA Coke Oven Emission Standard, and Its Curious Conclusion

Alan Derickson


This paper examines public-health measures to control employee exposure to the carcinogenic hazards of making coke, the steelmaking fuel produced by roasting coal, in the United States. It centers on the promulgation of the federal coke oven emission standard in 1976 and the forces that led steelmakers to accept this rule. Making coke was always a nasty affair. Accordingly, management recruited workers with few or no employment alternatives. Initially, fresh immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe tended the ovens. By the 1920s, the workforce was predominantly African American. Unlike other entrants into steel employment, African Americans could not use the internal labor markets of large steel firms to escape to less dangerous and generally more desirable positions. The coke plant remained a job ghetto for decades. Coke oven emissions cause cancer of the lungs and other sites. Awareness of this association spread slowly in the United States and eventually became undeniable for corporate medical directors and others in positions of responsibility. Authoritative epidemiological findings that coke workers in general and black coke workers in particular had extremely high mortality from lung cancer led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to set a relatively stringent limit on exposure in 1976. My argument is that the steel industry's acceptance of this remedial measure, a breakthrough in protection for workers of color, depended on an unusual combination of external pressures and self-interested incentives. The project draws primarily on the archives of the United Steelworkers (Penn State), including the records of its Health and Safety Department and those of the local union at US Steel's main coke works. I also use the OSHA records (National Archives), the American Iron and Steel Institute records (Hagley), and numerous published primary sources.