Art Shields tells the story of the brutal working conditions of the ‘sandhogs’ digging infrastructure deep under New York City and the fight of the Compressed Air Workers’ Union for a modicum of safety on the job.
‘The Sand Hogs Battle the Bends’ by Art Shields from Labor Age. Vol. 14 No. 2. February, 1925.
A SQUAT figure lurching up the stairway at A 12 St. Marks Place, dragging the left leg after him! Maybe a crippled vet, was my first thought. But then I saw his face: it was that of a man in his late forties. Too old for Chateau Thierry, undoubtedly.
A little later I heard his story outside of the union hall on the third floor. Not so old as years go, after all. Still in his thirties. But men are used up quickly at the calling he had chosen a few years before. He was a worn-out caisson worker: what they call a “sand hog.”
Not long ago he was a man among men. The medical examiners for Booth & Flynn, submarine tunnel builders, want only picked ones. They test applicants with stethescopes and blood pressure bands and pick those with soundest hearts and lungs. They pick men in their early prime: those over forty are bad risks. And men with superfluous flesh are not wanted. They can’t resist the “air” so well. Nor are many good risks found among those who have followed the work more than four years. The heart becomes enlarged and the blood vessels lose elasticity and the man becomes more susceptible to the “bends,” and is eligible if he passes the compensation board experts, for a temporary pension from the company, such as it is.
The man I am speaking of had had the “bends” once too often. The last time treatment failed. One thigh remained permanently paralyzed.
If you want an idea of the price in human life paid for the tunnels under our rivers and the foundations of our sky-scrapers, sunk through quicksand and mud to bed rock, pay a visit to the Compressed Air Workers’ Local of New York. There you will find veterans from the front line caissons that wrought these engineering victories. Some of them are dragging limp legs or have arms helpless at their sides. At best there is not one who has not been prematurely aged by the life, for the burning up of tissue goes on at double quick under air pressure. And there are many you will not see: they are under ground.
The Common Enemy— “The Bends’’
You will find Irishmen and Negroes, Poles and native Americans—almost every nationality and race among the 3,000 members of the New York local of Compressed Air Workers, affiliated with the hod carriers and building laborers. There are rock drillers, electricians, pipe fitters, laborers: all who. work in the caissons under the air pressure that is necessary to keep out the water and liquid mud that would otherwise flood their working places. All are necessary to the job and all have the same enemy, the “bends.”
Nearly nine hundred attacks of this compressed air illness occurred on the Hudson vehicular tunnel job, that will connect New York City at Canal Street, with Jersey City for automobile traffic; more than 8,000 cases are recorded for the East River tunnels of the Pennsylvania Railroad, twenty fatal. It strikes its victims down after they come out of the “‘air,”? sometimes hours later. A friend of mine was attacked as he was walking down Hudson Street, awakening hours later in the hospital. It is caused, say the doctors, by the formation of bubbles in the blood stream, as the extra air that has been forced through the lungs, passes out of solution: or it may come from the blood pressure failing to reduce properly. Its usual effect is a partial or complete paralysis of the muscles, though there are cases of the air bubbles penetrating the brain or some other vital organ.
The Compressed Air Workers’ Union has been through hard fights for better wages and the union job; notably the six months’ strike on the 14th Street tunnel job four years ago and a shorter one to unionize the Hudson vehicular tunnel workings. But its main drive now is to get the shorter working shifts that are a partial safeguard against the dreaded illness. This demand is taking two forms: (1) agitation for the Nicol-Phelp bill, limiting the hours under which men may be worked at the higher pressures; (2) refusal to work for contractors who would follow the old schedules while the new law is pending.
Taxes vs. Lives
Mayor Hylan, a gentleman who has never had the “bends,” is complaining that the union is holding up the tunnel advertised to run from Staten Island to Brooklyn, under the Narrows at the entrance to the inner harbor. Funds are appropriated. But the auctioning of contracts is delayed because Hylan and his Board of Estimate are at a deadlock with the union, which has served notice that contractors will have to reckon on a reformation of the working day. The old schedules on the Booth & Flynn contract for the Hudson vehicular job must give way to more human ones. Instead of the 6-hour day starting at 21 pounds pressure it must begin when the men are subjected to 18 pounds. The 4-hour day at 26 pounds is called for and the working time is to diminish rapidly as the pressure goes up until 48 pounds. Then only one hour will be permitted to each man during the day.
Higher costs, cries Hylan: fewer cripples, says the union. It is taxes against lives.
Down at the union hall the boys say they will stand pat. Not a man will go down into the caissons until the new contract is consented to, they declare.
“That Staten Island job will mean thousands of attacks of the ‘bends’ if we don’t get the new schedule,” an old compressed air worker told me. “It is deep under the Narrows and air pressure rises two pounds for every five feet under the surface of the water. The average pressure will run between thirty and forty-five pounds above normal. It’ll be hell. The pains in your ears till you get used to it and the horrible aching in the legs and arms as the “bends” get you. And you never feel right on the job: your bowels don’t move right and your head gets woozy. It’ll be bad enough anyway, but we figure that the changes we are asking will mean the difference between hundreds and thousands of attacks.”
Lest anyone should think that the six-hour day or the four-hour day mean only those amounts of time away from home, it is well to remember that the day is divided into semi-shifts, with rest periods in between which are seldom long enough to enable the worker to get home.
Breaking the Ear Drums
The “bends” are not the only disasters befalling the air workers. There are the ordinary casualties from tunnel work, magnified many times by the abnormal pressure. And there are bursted ear drums. Many a former “sand hop” is going about deaf as a post, from the popping of the delicate membranes in his head. The friend I referred to above told of a case in his gang. The man was hit by a flying piece of steel; his scalp, swollen out by the air in solution in his blood, splitting like a banana peel. In rushing him out of the caisson, the lock tender let him pass through the air locks too quickly, and the pressure of three atmospheres inside popped out the air drums no longer braced by a similar pressure from the outside. Fellow servants’ negligence it may be called, but that will not give back his hearing. Perhaps some day science will be able to duplicate the ear drums as it is now imitating the vocal cords, but perhaps it won’t bother to do it for a worn out “sand hog.”
It is not a pleasant thing to be on the industrial scrap heap. The most compensation a “sand hog” gets is twenty dollars a week during disability, and insurance companies, who handle these liabilities for the contractors, fight before the compensation board to have the amount reduced as quickly as possible, —generally with success. Then the victim’s wife goes for a job in a laundry or takes in needle work at home, and his kids are applicants for child labor jobs.
The law does little for the man who is ruined by the job and therefore self-preservation urges the air worker to look out for himself. It is up to him, for instance, not to let the foreman drive him too hard. Naturally, the harder one works under air pressure the more excess air is absorbed and the greater the hazard of the “‘bends.” Consequently laborers suffer more than mechanics and foremen less, with superintendents and engineers affected least or not at all. The laborers’ risk is aggravated by the fact that he does most of his work ankle deep in mud and water, thus subjecting him to colds that lower his vitality and predispose him to subsequent collapse.
No Parlor Job
The worker protects himself individually and through his organization. Government inspectors are few and their visits far between. The union has to be on the lookout. Joseph McPartlan, the local secretary, showed me a sample of the air gauges his organization has installed in all compressed air working places. The gauge registers pressure up to fifty pounds for all to see. A union man is appointed to see that no one tampers with the recording instrument and to call the men’s attention to the time limit for each poundage the indicator points to.
Seeing that the foremen obey union regulations is not always a parlor job. These men are usually selected for their physical prowess. It is technically a serious crime to strike a man working under air pressure, but bucko foremen have been known to do that very thing. More often a tough boss tries his slugging above water. On a job where a good union esprit de corps prevails he does not get very far.
In fighting for the rights of the workers the union is bucking big aggregations of capital. Especially is this the case with Booth & Flynn, the biggest of all the underwater tunnel contractors. This outfit gets most of the big tunnel jobs of this kind about New York because it has the advantage in bidding of getting its steel from an affiliated company in the Pittsburgh district. The company has another advantage. George Flynn, its leading spirit, has been trained in the hard school of Pennsylvania Republican politics. His father was mayor of Pittsburgh for years and the son understands the political manipulations which figure so largely in getting public contracts. But the Compressed Air Workers’ Union has fought Booth & Flynn successfully on the Fourteenth. Street tunnel and Hudson vehicular tunnel jobs. Union recognition and certain other demands were won though the contract provision for hours was unsatisfactory. The hour fight will go on.
More power to them!
Labor Age was a left-labor monthly magazine with origins in Socialist Review, journal of the Intercollegiate Socialist Society. Published by the Labor Publication Society from 1921-1933 aligned with the League for Industrial Democracy of left-wing trade unionists across industries. During 1929-33 the magazine was affiliated with the Conference for Progressive Labor Action (CPLA) led by A. J. Muste. James Maurer, Harry W. Laidler, and Louis Budenz were also writers. The orientation of the magazine was industrial unionism, planning, nationalization, and was illustrated with photos and cartoons. With its stress on worker education, social unionism and rank and file activism, it is one of the essential journals of the radical US labor socialist movement of its time.
PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/laborage/v14n02-feb-1925-LA.pdf